California Voters May Reform State’s Harsh Three Strikes Law


Proposition 36 would limit California’s “Three Strikes” law to people convicted of violent crimes, saving the cash-strapped state over $100 million per year by reducing the mounting cost of incarcerating aging nonviolent inmates.

California passed its “Three Strikes” law in 1994. It requires that a person convicted of a felony who has two or more prior convictions for certain offenses must be sentenced to at least 25-years-to-life in state prison, even if the third offense is nonviolent. People have been sentenced to life in prison for shoplifting a pair of socks or stealing bread, according to the Committee for Three Strikes Reform.

The law is a major reason for the increase in older inmates. Almost 125,000 prisoners around the country are 55 and older. At $68,000 per year, they cost the state nearly twice as much to house as younger prisoners, according to a recent ACLU study, largely because of higher medical costs. More than 14,000 of those inmates are in California’s overcrowded prisons. Elderly inmates are less likely to re-offend and many can be released safely to ease prison overcrowding.

Under Prop 36, repeat offenders whose third strike crime is minor or nonviolent will be sentenced to double the ordinary term rather than life. Offenders whose second or third strike is a violent offense will still be sentenced to life.

The proposal is supported by a broad bipartisan group of law enforcement leaders, academics, taxpayer advocates, civil rights organizations, and retired judges and prosecutors, including District Attorneys from Los Angeles to San Francisco, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, and conservative tax reform advocate Grover Norquist.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said in support of Prop 36: “The state should not allow the misallocation of limited penal resources by having life prison sentences for those who do not pose a serious criminal threat to society. The punishment should fit the crime.”