A Slate article on California’s Three Strikes Law significantly misstates the impact of the law:
Why would stiffer penalties increase violent crime? To understand this seeming paradox, you first need to understand the nature of California’s three-strikes law. Not just any offense gets you a first strike. It must be a so-called “record-aggravating” offense, which includes violent crimes like assault and rape as well as serious nonviolent crimes such as burglary or drug sales to minors. But after strike one, strikes two and three can come from any felony, including minor offenses like possession of marijuana or even stealing golf clubs or videotapes. A third strike carries with it a mandatory sentence of at least 25 years in prison.
Mmmm . . . not quite.
First of all, simple assault is not a strike; assault with a deadly weapon is. And “burglary” isn’t one; residential burglary is.
But the bigger problem is the claim that “after strike one, strikes two and three can come from any felony” — especially when followed by the claim that “[a] third strike carries with it a mandatory sentence of at least 25 years in prison.” This phrasing suggests that one serious or violent felony, followed by two nonserious and nonviolent felonies, can subject a defendant to a “mandatory” 25+ year sentence. Not so.
In order to be subject to a 25-to-life sentence under the Three Strikes Law, a defendant must have at least two previous felonies that qualify as serious or violent: murder, rape, robbery, arson, kidnapping, residential burglary, assault with a deadly weapon, and the like. Then one must commit a third felony.
What’s more, even then, a 25-to-life sentence is not “mandatory.” A judge always has discretion to dismiss one or more strike priors in the interests of justice, if he reasonably concludes that the defendant falls outside the spirit of the Three Strikes Law. In Los Angeles, if the third felony is not serious or violent, judges will generally dismiss one or more strike priors. [UPDATE: Prosecutors can do this too. It’s such second nature to me, I forgot to mention it.]
There are situations where a sentence is enhanced when a second felony is not a strike — but they aren’t 25-to-life situations. If a defendant has one serious or violent felony on his record, and commits a second felony of any kind, his sentence can be doubled. Here, too, the strike prior can be stricken — and often is, in drug cases, minor theft cases, and/or where the prior is very old, to name some examples of typical situations.
The Slate article is substantially misleading and should be corrected.
Incidentally, I’m working on getting a copy of the study discussed in the article. I have a feeling it’s flawed, but you never know until you read it.
P.S. Possession of marijuana is generally a misdemeanor in California, unless it is possessed for sale. Stealing golf clubs or videotapes is generally a misdemeanor, unless the defendant has a prior theft conviction for which he received jail or prison time, or the property exceeds $400 in value. Even then, you can get a misdemeanor with a relatively clean record.