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The Three-Strikes Law: Changes and Implications for Our Border Community

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By: Veronica Henderson, Attorney

In the United States, habitual offender laws (commonly referred to as “three-strikes laws”) are statutes enacted by state governments which mandate courts to impose harsher sentences on those individuals convicted of new,  criminal offenses  if they have been previously convicted of two or more prior, serious or violent criminal offenses. They are designed to incapacitate those more likely to commit crime, and to punish the most violent members of society. The popular name of these laws, “three strikes laws” comes from baseball, where a batter is permitted two strikes before striking out on the third.

However, this is not a game that anyone would want to play.

California passed its three-strikes law in 1994., when voters passed Proposition 184, by an overwhelming majority, with 72 percent in favor and 38 percent against. The initiative proposed to the voters had the title, “Three Strikes and You’re Out,” referring to a certain life sentence in prison after being convicted of three felonies. Over time, however, problems arose with the three strikes law as defendants were being sentenced to life imprisonment for committing any third felony, not just a serious or violent one. For example, a petty theft with a prior, in violation of Penal Code section 666, could justify a three-strikes sentence. The prison population increased significantly, and other results that the public expected (based on the promises made by the drafters of the initiative) were not brought to fruition. For example, rates of violent crime were not reduced, based on data collected.

Finally, a new initiative was proposed and passed that clarified the law’s original intent, which was to punish those convicted of a third serious or violent felony, such as those listed under California Penal Code section 1192.7. Proposition 36 was passed in California in 2012, clarifying once and for all the original intent of Three-Strikes legislation in California.

Today, the Three-Strikes law in California is still routinely implemented, sending serious and violent offenders to prison for 25 years to life.  Whether this sentencing scheme has contributed to declining rates of violent crime is difficult to determine. What we do know for certain is that the cost of incarcerating an individual for 25 years to life is high, with the average cost of housing an inmate in state prison approaching 50,000 dollars a year. Those opposed to the law believe that this money could be used for other resources such as school or even rehabilitation programs for inmates themselves.

Still, three strikes in California is the law, and our citizens need to be protected from the worst offenders. The Three-strikes law offers one way to combat crime on an individual basis,  even if it may not reduce overall crime levels in society at large.

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