Reforming California’s “Three Strikes” Policy

Date Filed: 02/16/2018

At the time it was enacted in 1994, California’s “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law, was widely considered to be the harshest sentencing law in the United States. Thousands of people have been sentenced to life in prison for minor crimes like simple drug possession and petty theft.

After nearly two decades of draconian sentences, LDF, along with Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project as its local counsel, sponsored a ballot campaign for the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012 (Proposition 36), which shortened the sentences of prisoners serving life terms for non-violent, non-serious offenses.

Proposition 36 was the nation’s first ballot measure to reduce the sentences of prisoners currently behind bars. It passed overwhelmingly with nearly 70 percent of the vote, winning majority support in every one of California’s 58 counties.

LDF and the Three Strikes Project released a progress report in September 2013 to coincide with the release of the 1,000th prisoner under Proposition 36. It found that those individuals released under Proposition 36 have an extremely low recidivism rate, well below the national average. In the year since it was signed into law, Proposition 36 has generated significant financial savings. The California prison system has saved over $12.5 million, a figure that will grow exponentially in the years to come.

Despite these early successes, much work remains. More than 2,000 Proposition 36 cases are currently pending in Superior Courts throughout California. And in Los Angeles alone, over 850 cases filed under Proposition 36 are waiting to be heard. Thus, LDF and the Three Strikes Project have pressed for a more prompt review of Proposition 36 cases. 

As part of that effort, in October 2013, LDF filed an amicus curiae brief in Coleman v. Brown and Plata v. Brown, litigation that requires California to dramatically reduce its prison population to comply with the United States Constitution. LDF’s brief  calls on the State of California to expedite the implementation of Proposition 36 and to provide reentry services to prisoners released under Proposition 36.

The full, timely implementation of Proposition 36 will reduce California’s prison population and help remedy the constitutional violations that have arisen from high levels of overcrowding. Meanwhile, reentry services like temporary housing, drug treatment, case management, and employment support are integral resources to prevent recidivism. 

LDF’s work in California on behalf of people serving extraordinarily excessive sentences is one example of our ongoing work to reform our country’s criminal justice system through litigation, advocacy, and public education.

Press Coverage

  • Her Honor November 27, 2011 New York Magazine