California Votes to Reform Draconian “Three Strikes” Mandatory Minimum Law

Press Release November 5, 2012
Media Contact

Contact: Ethan Nadelmann 646-335-2240 or Lynne Lyman 213-210-1023</p>

Californians voter appear to have voted overwhelmingly to reform their state’s draconian “three strikes” law. The measure, Proposition 36, which enjoyed a huge lead in early returns, will 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 law required the first and second strike to be either violent or serious, any infraction can trigger a third strike and the life sentence that goes 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 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution barring cruel and unusual punishment.

Voters in California have 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.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, issued the following statement:

“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.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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