Most people are aware that California has a law which stipulates that anyone convicted of felonies three times gets sent to prison for life. What people may not know, though, is that not every felony-level crime applies to California’s Three Strikes Law, and that the law itself is a lot more nuanced than they’ve been lead to believe.
The law was passed in the ‘90s as an angry reaction to the murders of 18-year-old Kimber Reynolds and 12-year-old Polly Klaas. The perpetrators of the crime were two men with violent criminal records, and the law was constructed to stop repeat offenders from committing violent crimes by putting them permanently behind bars. The reaction was certainly understandable, and the law that resulted from that reaction sounded like a good idea at the time. Unfortunately, data gathered since then has been unable to verify that the law did anything to reduce crime.
In 2012, the law was changed. Up until that point, any felony (even a “wobbler”) could result in a strike on a person’s criminal record. As such, offenders were receiving a third strike for committing relatively low-level crimes like possession of a controlled substance, or receiving stolen property. The change that occurred in 2012 was known as Proposition 36. It won the popular vote in every county in California, and significantly impacted California’s criminal justice system. Once Proposition 36 came into effect, all three strikes committed by an offender had to be violent felonies, as opposed to just the first two, for someone to be sent to prison for 25 years to life. If the third offense is a felony, but doesn’t count as a strike, the defendant will still face an enhanced sentence of double the normal penalty for the crime.
To understand how the law works in its current form, it’s important to understand which crimes qualify as a strike and which do not. Misdemeanors do not count as a strike, nor do many felonies. Those that do qualify are going to be serious felonies and/or violent felonies. Serious felonies are crimes like arson, robbery, kidnapping, carjacking, murder and rape.
Non-violent felonies, like receiving stolen property, do not qualify as a strike. However, some felonies that wouldn’t otherwise qualify as a strike will do so if they’re performed in a violent manner, such as using a firearm or inflicting great bodily injury on the victim.
Last, but not least, not every crime that counts as a strike will necessarily result in a strike on the defendant’s record. It’s possible to have a strike removed by the judge, at their discretion, at any time before sentencing. Additionally, defense attorneys can file what’s known as a Romero Motion and ask the judge to dismiss a strike in furtherance of justice.