In 1994, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 184, the "three-strikes" law, which mandated a sentence of 25 years to life imprisonment for anyone convicted of any felony if that person had been previously convicted of two or more serious or violent felonies. The three-strikes law also doubled the penalty for anyone convicted of a felony who had been previously convicted of one serious or violent felony (a so-called second-strike case). Thousands of recidivists have been imprisoned under the second-and third-strike statutory schemes. . . .
At first, many prosecutors and judges felt that three-strikes sentences were mandatory in all qualifying cases, no matter what the nature of the triggering felony. In California, many crimes are punishable as felonies but are not labeled as serious or violent by the Penal Code. For example, a second shoplifting offense, stealing more than $100 worth of avocados, writing an NSF check for more than $200 and possessing a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use are all felonies that could trigger the 25 years to life sentencing consequence of the three-strikes law.
In 1996, the California Supreme Court ruled that judges retained discretion under the three-strikes law to disregard a prior strike in the interest of justice and impose a sentence more commensurate with the circumstances of the present offense. As a result of this decision, policies and practices changed in some counties and courts, but not in all. Thus, California has a system that can vary widely. . . .
The proposed act keeps the present two and three strikes penalties; keeps the definitions of "serious" and "violent" felonies that count as prior strikes; and provides that current strikes must be either serious or violent felonies or from specific crime categories, such as certain sex offenses, large quantity drug offenses, crimes where the defendant uses a firearm, was armed or intended to cause great bodily injury to another person. Current third-strike prisoners whose triggering felony would not qualify for a 25-years-to-life sentence under the act would be eligible to apply for resentencing at the court's discretion as a second strike offender.
Reform failed at the ballot by 53-47 in the last election, and this compromise is based on the belief that a future initiative would go farther than supporters of three strikes would like.