Living Under the 3 Strikes Law

Revolutionary Worker #974, September 20, 1998

The United States is locking up people at an unprecedented rate. There are now 1.75 million people in state and federal prisons in the U.S.--up from 1 million people just four years ago. Young Black and Latino men are bearing the brunt of this. Over 70 percent of those imprisoned are Black, Latino or other people of color. For many youth, prison is a big part of the future they are handed by this system. According to the U.S. Justice Department 8.3 percent of all Black men between the ages of 25 and 29 are now in prison.

The incarceration of people has been accelerated through the enactment of so-called "three-strikes and you're out" legislation. Between 1993 and 1995, 24 states and the federal government passed new "three strikes" laws. While there are considerable differences in these laws, all of them mandate much stiffer sentences for people who have been convicted of multiple felonies. California's three strikes law--the second one to be passed in the U.S.--is one of the most repressive in the nation.

California Three Strikes Law

The three strikes law has made it possible for people with earlier convictions to be sentenced to life in prison for relatively minor offenses--including "petty theft with a prior conviction," possession of small amounts of drugs, receiving stolen property, or being caught in possession of a handgun. Here are some of its provisions:

  • The three strikes rule: People convicted of a third felony, after two previous convictions for "serious or violent" felonies, are given mandatory sentences of at least 25 years to life. In California, burglary is considered a "serious felony." And, the third strike itself does not have to be a serious or violent felony.
  • The second strike rule: If you are convicted of any felony and have a previous "violent or serious felony" (as defined by the law) the courts are now required to hand you twice the normal sentence.
  • Many convictions that teenagers received in juvenile court can be counted as "strikes."
  • There is no "wash-out" period: The law says that previous convictions must be counted as "strikes" no matter how old they are--even if they happened before the three strikes law was passed. For example, if you pled guilty to a burglary 20 years ago--even if it was a plea bargain and you received no jail time--it can still count as a "strike."
  • Multiple convictions from a single incident can be counted as multiple "strikes."
  • A person sentenced under three strikes can only receive a maximum of 20 percent time off for good behavior--down from 50 percent reduction of time for good behavior.
  • In the four years since this law was signed, California has sentenced over 4,000 people to life in prison for "three strikes" violations. Over 30,000 people have been sentenced to double the normal sentence under the "second strike" provision of the law.

    A few outrageous cases of injustice have received publicity in the media--like the 27-year-old Black man from Compton facing 25-to-life in prison for stealing a slice of pizza. "There is a temptation to view these cases as oddities," writes Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. "But evidence is mounting statewide that such cases are becoming commonplace."

    The Los Angeles District Attorney's office has reported that three quarters of the "third strike" cases they prosecute do not involve "serious" felonies or violent acts.

    The California Department of Corrections has published statistics documenting 62 percent of third strike convictions are for property crime, drug crimes and other non-violent offenses.

    There are now 227 people doing 25-to-life in California for "petty theft with a prior." 387 people are doing 25-to-life for simple drug possession. 792 are doing 25-to-life for burglary. 34 are doing life for forgery or fraud.

    A False Impression

    "My husband (who is in there for 25-to-life now) and I both voted for the three strikes law. We thought that it was going to put away the child molesters... Now he's doing time and every single member of our family is doing time along with him."

    A member of Families
    to Amend California's Three Strikes

    The California power structure justified the passage of their Three Strikes Law by widely promoting the impression that crime was out of control and that the existing laws were "soft on crime." In fact, neither of these things were true.

    During the 17 years leading up to 1994 (when three strikes went into effect), the California legislature passed more than 1,000 bills lengthening sentences or defining new crimes. Not surprisingly, these same years showed a six-fold increase in California's prison population--from 19,000 to 126,000. Between 1852 and 1984 California built 12 prisons. In the decade between 1984 and 1994 an additional 16 prisons were built.

    In other words, the 1994 "three strikes" law was a major leap in an existing trend toward longer sentences, tougher laws, and accelerated prison rates.

    While the prison population rose, the official crime statistics remained more or less steady. In fact, during 1993 and the first half of 1994, the rate of both violent and property crime actually fell.

    The New Apartheid

    "`Three Strikes and You're Out' can truly be said to be California's apartheid."

    Center on Juvenile
    and Criminal Justice

    These laws come down hardest on Black people and Latinos. 70 percent of those convicted of third strikes are Black or Latino.

    According to a report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice "while African Americans make up 7 percent of California's population and constitute 23 percent of felony arrests, they make up 31 percent of the prison population and 43 percent of the third strike defendants sent to state prison thus far. Conversely, whites, who make up 53 percent of California's population and constitute 33 percent of felony arrests statewide make up 29.5 percent of state prisoners and only 24.6 percent of third strike prisoners. Put another way, African Americans are being arrested for felonies at 4.7 times the rate for whites; being incarcerated at 7.8 times the rate of whites; and being imprisoned for a third strike at 13.3 times the rate of whites."

    The same report makes some chilling projections: "Currently, two and three strikers represent 8 percent of the prison population. Based on CDC estimates, two and three strikers will represent 49 percent of the prison population by the year 2024. As such, if the 13-fold overrepresentation for African Americans continues, the current starkly disparate incarceration rate for Blacks will substantially worsen."

    Four years after the passage of California's Three Strikes law we can see the real effect of the these laws--rising rates of incarceration, extremely long sentences for all kinds of offenses and massive injustice.

    This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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