California’s Three Strikes Law – Part One
Over 25 years ago, Polly Klaas was abducted from a slumber party at her home in Petaluma. After her disappearance, a fruitless search was conducted for two months. On December 4, 1993, Richard Allen Davis confessed to the murder and took police officers to where he had hidden the body. Davis is now being held on death row at San Quentin State Prison.
The case of Polly Klaas gained national attention. People throughout the country, and particularly in California, were scared. Richard Allen Davis was a career criminal, and the fact that a child could be taken out of her own home was disturbing.
The public was so horrified by the case that it led Californians to pass the Three Strikes Law. As time went on, it became apparent that the law imposed strict penalties on those who may not have deserved them. In this two-part blog series, the San Diego criminal defense attorneys at jD LAW, P.C., examine the fallout of three strikes sentencing. If you have questions, feel free to contact us directly at (760) 630-2000.
The History of California’s Three Strikes Law
California’s Three Strikes Law was passed in 1994, shortly after the abduction of Polly Klaas. California was certainly not the first state to impose such a law. The state did, however, have the harshest penalties and most severe definitions.
Under the Three Strikes Law, a defendant convicted of a serious felony would face increased criminal consequences for future crimes. The first serious felony conviction would be considered a defendant’s first strike, though penalties would not be increased for this crime under the Three Strikes Law.
If a defendant already convicted of one serious felony was convicted of any other crime, he would have two strikes on his criminal record. The defendant would then be sentenced to twice the amount of time in prison recommended for the second crime. When a person had two strikes on his record and was convicted of another crime, regardless of the nature of that crime, he would have three strikes on his record. This third strike did not have to be a serious felony, but a third strike meant an automatic sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
The Definition of a Serious Felony in California
For the Three Strikes Law to take effect, a defendant has to be convicted of not just a felony, but a serious felony. These are listed in the California Penal Code Section 1192.7. They include:
- Attempted murder
- Voluntary manslaughter
- Forced sodomy
- Lewd or lascivious acts performed on a child under the age of 14
- A felony punishable by death or life in prison
- A felony involving a firearm that caused great bodily injury or death
- Any attempt to commit a felony punishable by death or life in prison
- Assault on a peace officer with a deadly weapon
- Assault with intent to commit rape or robbery
- Explosion of a destructive device with the intent to cause bodily injury, mayhem, or death
- Certain theft crimes
Over time, it became clear that there were problems with three strikes sentencing.
Problems with California’s Three Strikes Law
Defendants were being sent to prison for life, regardless of the nature of the third crime they committed. If you had a prior serious felony conviction on your record, a third offense for burglary could be enough to get you sentenced to life in prison. There was no discretion allowed on the part of the judge, and the nature or severity of the third crime could not be considered. Those with a prior serious felony on their record faced consequences that were severe and automatic.
In 2003 alone, nearly a decade after the law was passed, 360 defendants were serving life sentences in prison for minor shoplifting convictions. The Three Strikes Law was much harsher than it was originally intended to be.
Amendments Are on the Way
While it took nearly 25 years, California lawmakers and voters came to understand the inherent flaws of the Three Strikes Law. Together, they have voted in several amendments to the law.
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