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What You Need to Know About California’s Three-Strikes Sentencing Law

California enacted a three-strikes law in 1994 amid a political climate that sought increased prison sentences for repeat offenders as a way of deterring serious crime. While other states adopted similar laws, California’s was one of the toughest. Originally, it imposed on any convicted third-time felon a mandatory prison sentence of at least 25 years to life. It also doubled the prison term for most second-time offenders.

The inappropriateness of these sentences became apparent in cases of nonviolent felonies, especially drug possession cases where addiction or substance abuse was the motivating factor rather than a criminal purpose. With so many nonviolent drug offenders being incarcerated, the law also caused California’s prison population to skyrocket.

In reaction, California voters approved Proposition 36, prompting an amendment to the three-strikes law that took effect on November 6, 2012. The revised law restricted the mandatory 25-years-to-life sentence to serious or violent third-strike felonies. It applied retroactively, so that individuals imprisoned under the original law were eligible for resentencing.

However, even with the amendment, there are exceptions. A defendant is subject to a 25-years-to-life sentence on a third strike if:

  • The third strike is a controlled substance charge that involves excessive amounts of heroin or drugs with a cocaine base.
  • The third strike is a controlled substance charge where the defendant manufactured excessive amounts of certain designated controlled substances.
  • The third strike is a felony sex offense or any felony that results in mandatory sex offender registration with certain enumerated exceptions.
  • The defendant used a firearm, was armed with a firearm or intended to cause great bodily harm.

At the time the law was amended, in 2012, there were about 8,800 people serving third-strike life sentences in California; of those, about 3,000 had been convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.

The 2012 measure should not be confused with an earlier Proposition 36, passed in 2000, that made treatment an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent, low-level drug possession. Most people convicted of such offenses for the first or second time were given the right to probation and community-based drug treatment in lieu of prison. Treatment programs so far have graduated 84,000 participants and have greatly reduced the number of drug offenders in prison, according to Drugpolicy.org.

If you have prior felony convictions and face another felony charge, it’s important to seek experienced defense counsel immediately. Amber Gordon, Attorney at Law provides criminal defense representation to clients in Hollywood and throughout the greater Los Angeles metro area. Call us at 310-773-3980 or contact us online to arrange a consultation at our Los Angeles office.

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