What Is California’s Three Strikes Law?

California has a stringent sentencing law known as the three strikes law, which mandates a prison sentence of 25 years to life for someone who’s convicted of a violent or serious felony and already had two similar convictions on their record. It also limits the privilege of “custody credits,” which inmates earn for time served with good behavior. Usually, enough custody credits can allow an inmate to be released halfway through their sentence. Still, the third strike law changes that so the convict must serve at least 80% or more of their term before being released for good behavior.

The three strikes law also affects how sentences are served. Sometimes, someone will face multiple charges and receive jail sentences for each charge, but they can serve those charges simultaneously. For example, if someone receives three five-year sentences, they can serve all three sentences at the same time and be done within five years. But with the three strike law, they must serve the sentences consecutively, meaning they’ll potentially spend 15 years in jail.

Are There Any Exceptions in California’s Three Strikes Law?

There are some exceptions where the third strike law doesn’t just affect severe or violent felonies. Someone could have two prior convictions of those types of felonies and be charged and convicted with something that doesn’t fit the strike category. But because of the two prior convictions, they could end up with a sentence twice as long as they’d usually receive for the lower crime.

There are also situations where the third conviction wasn’t technically a serious or violent felony but is treated as one. Some of those situations include:

  • Drug offenses where specific amounts of methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, or other drugs are involved.
  • The convicted person carried or used a deadly weapon when they committed the third crime.
  • Felony sex crimes.
  • The third strike isn’t a serious or violent felony, but at least one of the two previous convictions was among the most serious, including sex crimes with children or murder, or the person convicted intended to cause significant bodily injury when they committed the crime.

What Does California Law Consider to Be Serious or Violent Felonies?

The wording appears ambiguous–wouldn’t a violent felony be considered a serious felony? But California has two separate categories for felonies under the three strike law.

Serious Felonies

This type of felony includes the following.

  • Robbery
  • First-degree burglary (where someone unlawfully enters an inhabited place to commit burglary)
  • Selling methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, or PCP to minors
  • Grand theft that involves a firearm
  • A felony where the person charged used a firearm

Violent Felonies

  • Murder or voluntary manslaughter
  • Sexual crimes, including rape or forced sodomy
  • Kidnapping or carjacking
  • Arson
  • Extortion

How Does the Three Strikes Law Affect Criminal Defense?

It makes criminal defense a challenge and is a strong reason to work with an experienced criminal defense attorney rather than try to defend yourself. While challenging, it’s not necessarily a given that nothing can be done to prevent the stringent jail sentence on the third strike. Every case is unique, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. But here are a few tactics that have been successful in the past.

  • Request a prior strike be dismissed. This depends on factors including how far in the past the previous strike occurred, the overall history of the person charged with the felony, and the specifics of the present-day charges. But there are times when a judge will agree to dismiss a prior strike, meaning the current charges won’t be the third strike.
  • Examine the evidence closely. If the evidence for the third strike is faulty or lacks concrete details, the prosecutor may be willing to dismiss the charges if they think it’s too hard to prove in court.
  • Try to have the felony reduced to a misdemeanor. If the court agrees, the charges no longer involve felonies, and misdemeanors don’t qualify as a strike.

How Did Proposition 36 Affect the Three Strikes Law?

Since Proposition 36 was enacted in 2012, criminal defense attorneys can appeal a three strike sentence if it appears to be cruel and unusual punishment, conditions prohibited in the U.S. Constitution. Usually this is most successful if the third strike is not as serious as the previous two or if considerable time has elapsed between convictions.

Can Someone Convicted Under the Three Strikes Law Ever Earn Parole?

Thanks to Proposition 57, which passed into California law in 2016, there’s an amendment to the California Constitution which says that anyone convicted of a nonviolent felony is eligible for parole. In order to be considered for parole, they must have completed their primary sentence, which is the maximum sentence given for a specific conviction.

What that means is that if someone is convicted of their third felony, but it’s a serious rather than violent felony, they’d be sentenced to at least 25 years. But if the third crime on its own has a much shorter jail sentence (for example, five years rather than 25), the person convicted would be eligible to apply for parole at the end of the five years.

What Should I Do if I Need Help with a Three Strikes Law Case?

Call the SoCal Law Network at 949-305-7995 to set up a free consultation. Our team of knowledgeable, experienced criminal defense attorneys knows how stressful this is for you. We can work through the specifics of your case to determine the best approach for yours.