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Decision '94 / SPECIAL GUIDE TO CALIFORNIA'S ELECTIONS : Propositions : 184: Three Strikes / Tougher Sentencing : WHAT IT IS

October 30, 1994

In voter initiative form, this is the "three strikes and you're out" measure, which significantly lengthens criminal sentences. It makes no change in state law because it is word for word the same as the bill passed by the Legislature and signed into law in March by Gov. Pete Wilson.

The "three strikes" law changed sentencing rules across a wide swath of the criminal justice system and is expected to have a huge impact on the prison population in years to come.

If voters approve the initiative, the Legislature can change the statute only by mustering a two-thirds vote.

* Lengthens Sentences: Like the legislation, the initiative statute doubles prison terms for all criminals convicted of second felonies, after they have been convicted of one prior serious or violent felony. Criminals who commit a third felony, and have been convicted of two prior serious or violent felonies, receive sentences of three times the prison term now in the law for the crime, or 25 years to life, with the possibility of parole, whichever is greater.

In narrow circumstances, crimes committed by juveniles can count as strikes, but the crimes must be violent or serious, the youths must be 16 or 17, and the prosecutor must have sought to try them as adults.

* Violent and Serious Felonies: The California Penal Code specifies "violent" felonies as murder, voluntary manslaughter, attempted murder, armed robbery, mayhem, rape, including rape by an object, forced sodomy or oral copulation, kidnaping of a child under age 14, some child molestation, crimes in which firearms are used or great bodily injury is inflicted, and some arson. "Serious" felonies include all violent felonies, plus home burglary, any felony in which the criminal uses a deadly weapon, grand theft of a firearm, assault with intent to commit rape or robbery, assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer, assault committed by a prison inmate, assault with a deadly weapon, exploding a bomb, and selling heroin, cocaine, PCP or methamphetamine to a minor. Burglary accounts for roughly a third of all serious and violent felonies that result in prison terms. Criminals who have been previously convicted of one or more serious or violent felonies are subject to the law's strict sentencing scheme if they commit any felony on subsequent offenses. California has more than 500 felonies, among them some types of petty theft, passing bad checks for large sums, and fraud.

* Other Provisions: The initiative prohibits judges from granting probation in lieu of prison sentences to people who fall under its provisions.

It limits the right of prosecutors to enter into plea bargains to reduce the seriousness of the charges.

The initiative requires that convicts serve at least 80% of their prison sentences for "second" and "third" strike provisions.

* First Six Months: In the first six months of the law's operation, prosecutors found that more than 70% of the felons prosecuted under "three strikes" committed non-serious or nonviolent felonies, but nonetheless face or will receive longer sentences because they had records of prior serious or violent felonies.

* The Future: The California Department of Corrections estimates that largely because of "three strikes," the California prison population, now at 126,000, will exceed 230,000 by the turn of the century. California has 28 prisons, but will have to build 25 more by 2000 to house all the inmates. Spending on state prisons, now $3 billion annually, is expected to double by 2002.

ARGUMENTS FOR

Although the law already is on the books, Californians should pass the initiative to ensure that the Legislature realizes that it would be political suicide to weaken the "three strikes" law.

"Three strikes" removes criminals from the streets and stops repeat offenders from committing more crimes by locking them up. It will reduce crime, and Californians will save billions of dollars in lost wages, medical bills and property damage.

The provision doubling sentences for felons who commit a second strike will remove criminals from the streets until they reach at least age 40, at which point most criminals stop committing crimes. The "third strike" provision will ensure the removal from the streets of career criminals for many years, up to and including life.

The provision that requires long sentences for criminals who commit "any felony" after having committed prior serious or violent felonies will help law enforcement remove criminals from society before they commit more violent crimes.

ARGUMENTS AGAINST

"Three strikes" will bankrupt California government by draining billions of dollars to build prisons. It will clog courts with defendants accused of nonviolent felonies who, facing a quarter-century in prison, will demand jury trials rather than accept plea bargains.

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