The Three Strikes Law, originally titled Three Strikes and You’re Out, was passed by California voters in 1994 with an overwhelming majority. The law attempted to isolate career criminals by imposing lifetime sentences for conviction of their second or third offenses. Under the law, offenders with one serious or violent felony conviction would face a doubled sentence upon conviction of any second felony, and offenders with two serious or violent felonies would face a mandatory minimum sentence of 25-years-to-life for any subsequent felony offense. In 2012, voters passed Proposition 36, which narrowed the strike zone for the third strike, requiring that also be serious or violent.
Although the law is considered to be mandatory, prosecutors retain limited discretion to forgo the sentencing enhancement if they consider it to be “in the furtherance of justice.” In the 1996 case People v. Superior Court (Romero), this same discretion was extended to judges. The ability to shield less deserving offenders from the full effect of the law helped to alleviate some concerns about the harshness of the sentencing measure; nevertheless, it also introduced the possibility that offenders would be treated differently in each state. Some prosecutors and judges might use their discretion sparingly, while others might use it more liberally. Specifically, variation between urban and rural counties may be the most pronounced. Rural counties may be inclined to take a stricter approach to Three Strikes sentencing, whereas urban counties, faced with a higher caseload, may offer more exibility. Given the immense gravity of a two- or three-strike sentence, it is important to consider how uniformly these sentencing requirements are being applied statewide.
Professor Jennifer Walsh directed student researcher Jessica Jin’16 for this Rose Institute publication.