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California Votes to Reform Draconian "Three Strikes" Mandatory Minimum Law

After nearly 20 years and over $20 billion spent, California voters have voted overwhelmingly to reform our state's draconian "three strikes" law.
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After nearly 20 years and over $20 billion spent, California voters have voted overwhelmingly to reform our state's draconian "three strikes" law. The statewide ballot measure, Proposition 36, delivered a two-to-one mandate (68.6%-31.4%) to close a controversial loophole in the law so that life sentences can only be imposed when the new felony conviction is "serious or violent."

Three strikes laws, often known as habitual offender laws, grew out of the "tough on crime" era of the 1980s and 90s. Between 1993 and 1995, 24 states passed some kind of three strikes law, but California's 1994 three strikes ballot measure was especially harsh.

While the 1994 law required the first and second strike to be either violent or serious, any infraction could trigger a third strike and the life sentence that went with it. Therefore, petty offenses - such as stealing a piece of pizza - have led to life imprisonment for thousands of people.

Although 25 other states have passed three-strikes laws, only California punishes minor crimes with a life sentence. In fact, 3,700 prisoners (more than 40 percent of the total third-strike population of about 8,500) in the state are serving life for a third strike that was neither violent nor serious. Because of its unique stringency, California's habitual offender law has generated numerous legal challenges based on the 8 Amendment to the U.S. Constitution barring cruel and unusual punishment.

Yesterday, voters in California put an end to one of the harshest and least effective sentencing laws in the country. Proposition 36 ensures that no more people are sentenced to life in prison for minor and nonviolent drug law violations. In fact, implementation of the new law will not only bring relief to petty offenders moving forward, but inmates currently serving life sentences for non-serious, non-violent crimes can apply for a new sentence. In these retroactive cases the sentence can only be reduced if a judge determines that the individual is no longer an unreasonable threat to public safety.

"Californians finally appear to be coming to their senses on the basic question of who deserves to spend the rest of his or her life behind bars," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Locking up people for life whose only recent offense was a minor violation of the state's drug laws never made sense in terms of public safety, finance or morality. California at last is rejoining the civilized world."

As California set the trend for the passage of 3-strikes laws across the country in the 1990s, we are optimistic that the passage of Proposition 36 will also set the trend for rethinking these reactionary and costly laws in other states. California incarcerates more people than any other state in a country that imprisons more people than in any other country, with 25% of the world's prisoners, but only 5% of the world's population. There is still a long way to go to dismantle the mass incarceration industrial complex we have built in the U.S. since Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1971.

Lynne Lyman is the California State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance (

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