Californias Three Strikes Law History

25 Years Is Long Enough

In the 25 years since California’s Three Strikes Law has been in effect, it has led to increased incarceration, devasted communities of color, and expanded our prison budget at a cost to social services. 

Our mission now is to have registered California voters vote out the law that was voted in over a generation ago.


California’s mass incarceration problem can be tied directly to the extreme sentencing laws passed


In 1980, California had a prison population of 23,264.


• In 1990, it was 94,122. 

In 1999, five years after the passage of Three Strikes, it had increased its population to a remarkable 160,000. 

• By 2006, the prison population had ballooned to 174,000 prisoners.

  • We now have over 130,000 people in prison and 70,000 people in our jails.

• California has 20,000 more prisoners than the entire federal system.

  Additionally, according to the Stanford Three Strikes Project: 

• 45% of inmates serving life sentences under the Three Strikes law are black.

  • This law is applied disproportionately against mentally ill and physically disabled defendants. 

The Three Strikes law was enacted by legislators, and supported by law enforcement...

  who stoked voters’ fears a generation ago about crime and “super predators.” Now, those same legislators are recognizing that these policies were failures. Joe Biden now says the federal 3 strikes law was a mistake. 

Impact on Other States

  There is a truism that “as goes California, so goes the nation.” This was true of the tough on crime “three strikes” law. This will be true if California repeals the Three Strikes law.

End Three Strikes Sentencing In California


  While the first true "three-strikes" law was passed in 1993, by voters in the state of Washington, California soon passed its own in 1994, legislatively first, led by Assembly member Jim Costa, who worked to place six prisons in his district. Later that year, voters passed Proposition 184. The initiative proposed to the voters had the title of

   “Three Strikes and You're Out” 

de facto life imprisonment after being convicted of three violent or serious felonies which are listed in the California Penal Code. 

referring to 

End Three Strikes Sentencing In California 

The concept swiftly spread to other states

However,  California was particularly broad in its list of “serious” or “violent” felonies that constituted a “strike.”  

By 2004, twenty-six states and the federal government had laws that satisfy the general criteria for designation as “three-strikes” statutes—namely, that a third felony conviction brings a sentence of 20 or 25 years to life where 20 or 25 years must be served before becoming parole eligible.

A 1997 study found that in California,

 “the three-strikes law did not decrease serious crime or petty theft rates below the level expected on the basis of preexisting trends.”

In 2004, ten years after the adoption of Three Strikes in California,

the California Legislative Analyst’s Office also analyzed whether crime rates dropped in the state as a result of Three Strikes. They found that Three Strikes and the resulting incapacitation of people in prison for lengthy sentences did not lead to California’s crime rate drop – a drop that was mirrored across the country. 

Thousands of people are still incarcerated under Three Strikes.

  Sentences are still being doubled under this law. People are still receiving life sentences. Because of this law, people are excluded from parole reform and ineligible from earning full credit for good behavior while incarcerated.

In 1993: Washington

 In 1994: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, New Mexico, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Tennessee. The federal government also enacted their “habitual offender” law as part of the

 1994 Crime Bill.



In 1995: Arkansas, Florida, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Utah, Georgia

In 1996: South Carolina 

In 2006: Arizona

 In 2012: Massachusetts 

  There is reason to believe that if California voters would repeal their Three Strikes law, other states would soon follow.

 Indeed, as noted above, the federal version has been widely criticized by Democratic nominees in the current Presidential primary.

The Three Strikes law has become shorthand for widely unpopular “tough on crime” laws.

 Laws that people understand to have led to our current situation in 

mass incarceration.

In the recent New York Times magazine project, 1619,

 Bryan Stevenson has an essay on slavery and incarceration. In this, he refers to three strikes laws as a driver of mass incarceration.

Three strikes law history in california

Second Strikers


  Second strikers are those that have had their sentences doubled as a result of one prior conviction. These second strikers may also have additional enhancements imposed as a result of the three strikes law, including a 3-year prior prison enhancement. Further “good time” credit in prison is limited to no more than 1/5th of the sentence.

Huge Yearly Cost


  The aggregate number of years that this adds to the sentences 26.1% of people in custody – 33,800 people-- is certainly enormous and leads to huge yearly costs.

Excessive sentencing within Three Strikes


  An additional over 6500 people are serving sentences as a “third striker.” Although the common understanding is that a third strike sentence is 25 years to life, in reality, the statute allows for much greater sentencing as it requires the court to impose the greatest possible sentence from a list of choices. Thus, many people have sentences that are 30, 40, or 50+ years to life as a result of the three strikes law. 

$80,000 a year to house a lifer


  It is important to note that CDCR denominates 27,476 people or 21.2% of people as “lifers.” An example of a lifer is someone who is serving a sentence for attempted murder (7 years to life) or 2nd degree murder (15 years to life) or 1st degree murder (25 years to life). However, each of these “to life” sentences could have been enhanced with other charges. For example, a person convicted of 2nd degree murder in which a firearm was used would have a 40-years to life sentence. (15 years to life + 25 years to life as an enhancement for use of the firearm.).

Our Youth Are Our Future


  Under Youth Offender Parole law, if a person had a 40 years to life sentence, they could receive a parole hearing at the time of their longest “controlling offense,” or 25 years. However, if a person had any kind of a prior “strike,” i.e. a purse snatch committed when a person was 16 years old, that person would NOT be eligible for a Youth Offender parole hearing at 25 years, but would have to serve the entire 40 year sentence first. The result is that people who have long ago rehabilitated and are aging, are kept in custody for years past when they should be out.

Just saying


  Thus, the number of people who would be affected by the repeal of California’s Three Strikes law could be much greater than just the numbers who are listed in CDCR’s numbers as “second” or “third” strikers.

The California prison budget now stands at over $14 billio

As a result of this use of resources, California has:


  •  an unprecedented number of people sleeping in our streets; 
  •  a crumbling infrastructure; 
  •  an inability to provide clean water to many of its residents; 
  • counties that lack the funding to provide recreational programs to the young; and 
  • clean streets, and other essential services.

The Three Strikes Law Prevents Rehabilitation and Reform:


We now know that young people age out of crime. However, this law takes young people, whose brains are not yet fully developed, and locks them away the majority of their lives. 

Another concern with this law is:

The list of crimes in it is so long and read so broadly that people who do not even cause physical harm to another person can have their sentences doubled, and then can be locked away for life under this law. 

As a result of Three Strikes:


the Legislature is forced to exclude many people from reforms that the Legislature has enacted. These reforms recognize that people age out of crime, get rehabilitated, and are ready to be productive members of their communities. These reforms recognize that California has to address its problems of mass incarceration. However, the Three Strikes law prevents its application to those who would otherwise be eligible and thus, holds people – and the state budget of California – captive.

The voters of California have already signaled their paradigm shift on crime by approving:

Three Sentencing Initiatives  

  •  Prop 36 (2012)
  •  Prop 47 (2014)
  •  Prop 57 (2016) 

California voters are now very attuned to the problem of mass incarceration and to the racial disparities that pervade our criminal justice system. 

The reform made to this law in 2012 did not go far enough:

However, it showed that voters are ready to undo Three Strikes and move away from this failed policy. 

25 years is long enough. 

The failed Three Strikes experiment must end.