California’s Broken 3 Strike Rule

By Edwin B. – Criminal Justice Intern

Starting in the late 1980’s, there was a dramatic increase in crime. Most notably, a large percentage of the crime was caused by repeat offenders. To find a solution for the rising crime rates, many states decided to deter crime by enacting strict laws. In 1994, California enacted the three strikes sentencing law. The three strikes law would require any defendant convicted of any new felony, having already suffered one prior conviction felony, to be sentenced to prison for twice the term provided for the crime. After a defendant has had two prior strikes, the law mandates a prison sentencing of at least 25 years to life. Despite growing debate on the effectiveness of the three strikes law in California, there is overwhelming evidence of the negative impact it has had on society. The law has provided California’s criminal justice system with more problems. Due to the three strikes law, California’s prisons have become overcrowded with inmates, become an expensive burden on both citizens and government, and has created unjust sentencing.

California FlagsOvercrowding prisons have become a huge problem everywhere. In California, over half of the state-owned prisons are housing prisoners over their capacity limit. Having inmate facilities where capacity is exceeded can be problematic for many reasons. Overcrowded prisons create difficult and widespread challenges to maintaining prisoner health and providing a safe environment. Having overcrowded prisons creates unsanitary living conditions that can create health problems, physically and mentally. Not only are prisoners at risk, staff members working in prisons are also affected. They face greater potential violence from overcrowded prisons, threat of infections, and an increase in stress and mental health issues. Overcrowding also creates the need for more prisons. It is not an easy process to have a prison built anywhere so many states, including California, turn to privately owned prisons. These prisons are run by contracts, making them “for profit” prisons. Having “for profit” prisons redirect the priority from humanely operating a prison to making as much money as possible. In this environment, inmate health, living conditions, and necessities are not catered to properly. They are given the lowest quality of everything in efforts to minimize the spending.

The amount of money spent on prisons has drastically increased in California over the years. In the year 2018-2019, the annual average cost to incarcerate an inmate in California was $81,203 per inmate. Having the three strikes law increases the number of years an inmate must be incarcerated. Having many people incarcerated only commits the amount of money taxpayers will pay to house an inmate for many years. After an inmate receives their third felony offense, the mandatory life sentence becomes 25 years to life, meaning taxpayers would pay at least $2,030,075 for one prisoner to serve their mandatory sentence. The prison population is also ageing at a high rate making health care an expensive add-on to prisons. Having the three strikes law creates a financial burden while minimally affecting habitual offenders. Relocating resources and investing in rehabilitation programs could have a higher impact on habitual offenders. There is a need for programs designed to give the proper help needed to avoid recidivism and reintegrate back into society. Studies have proven that these programs can actually save up to $18,478 per participant.

California's Broken 3 Strike RuleUnfortunately, the third strike has a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life which can be imposed for any felony, even a non-violent one. This could potentially mean a defendant can receive a long mandatory sentence for a crime that, under regular circumstances, would have received a much lower prison sentence. California’s criminal justice system has since held grossly disproportionate sentencing. Many argue that it violates the 8th amendment protecting against no cruel or unusual punishment. When a person on their third strike is handed a 25-year mandatory sentence for stealing $150 dollars of groceries, possessing a small amount of an  illegal substance, or property vandalism, the punishment becomes unjust. Federal prosecutors can also file a notice invoking a provision that makes a third felony drug offense — state or federal, no matter how old the priors — subject to mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Sentencing Project concluded that more than two thirds of people serving life sentences today were convicted of nonviolent crimes. Criminals deserve to be punished for their crimes but the punishment should always fit the crime. The three strikes mandatory sentencing has created an unfair prison sentence to many inmates currently serving a long mandatory sentence.

California’s three strikes law has only created more problems for the criminal justice system. It has exacerbated overcrowding, created disproportionate sentences, and cost the taxpayers significantly more money than rehabilitative programs would.  Offenders should pay their debts to society, but the current law requires rethinking.  With the amount of time passed since it’s enactment, there is more than enough research now to support true fair sentencing reform.