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Stanford Three Strikes Project

Three Strikes Basics

In 1994, California voters enacted the “Three Strikes and You're Out” law in response to the tragic murders of Kimber Reynolds and Polly Klass. The law imposed a life sentence for almost any crime, no matter how minor, if the defendant had two prior convictions for crimes defined as serious or violent by the California Penal Code.

According to official ballot materials promoting the original Three Strikes law, the sentencing scheme was intended to “keep murders, rapists, and child molesters behind bars, where they belong.” However, today, more than half of inmates sentenced under the law are serving sentences for nonviolent crimes.

The Three Strikes Project exclusively represents these individuals. Project clients have been given life sentences for offenses including stealing one dollar in loose change from a parked car, possessing less than a gram of narcotics, and attempting to break into a soup kitchen.

Statistics from the California Department of Corrections show that the law disproportionately affects minority populations. Over 45 percent of inmates serving life sentences under the Three Strikes law are African American. The Three Strikes law is also applied disproportionately against mentally ill and physically disabled defendants. California's State Auditor estimates that the Three Strikes law adds over $19 billion to the state's prison budget. Criminologists agree that life sentences for non-violent repeat offenders does nothing to improve public safety.

In 2012, voters overwhelmingly enacted the Three Strikes Reform Act (“Proposition 36”) to address the harshest, and unintended, consequences of the sentencing law. Prop. 36 eliminated life sentences for non-serious, non-violent crimes and established a procedure for inmates sentenced to life in prison for minor third strike crimes to petition in court for a reduced sentence. In order to win a reduced sentence, a court must find that the prisoner no longer poses an unreasonable threat to public safety. Prop. 36 was the first voter initiative since the Civil War to reduce the sentences of inmates currently behind bars.

In the first eight months of its enactment, over 1,000 prisoners were released from custody under Prop. 36. Of these inmates released, the recidivism rate stands at less than 2 percent charged with a new crime, a number well below state and national averages. Proposition 36 has saved California taxpayers between $10 and $13; and if the reform is applied to all eligible inmates, it is estimated that Californians would save almost $1 billion over the next ten years.