The California Three Strikes law is the harshest in the nation, and often the law that forms the boundaries of the debate. Many states have laws called “three strikes” laws, but those laws differ markedly from the California implementation. Here’s a summary from the 1998 RAND report on the subject:
The laws of most states limit strikes-eligible offenses to a small number of violent felonies, and require three strikes to trigger a mandatory sentence such as life with out parole, or 25 years to life. (Source)
In California, the situation is different:
In California, any of an extended list of serious offenses may count as first or second strike. After one strike has accrued, any of approximately 500 felonies triggers the following sanctions: the sentence prescribed by law is doubled, it must be served in state prisonl and “good time” credits earned toward an early release can amount to no more than 20 percent of the full sentence. Any serious felony subsequent to the first strike also results in accrual of a second strike. Once a second strike has been earned, any subsequent felony triggers the third strike and an automatic 25-year-to-life sentence (at least 20 years of which must be served). The triggering of additional sanctions by any felony following a strike (first or second) is principally responsible for the California law’s broad impact. Through 1996, California had sentenced 26,074 prisoners under the enhanced sanctions of its law. This number had increased to 35,411 by the end of 1997 (Lungren, 1998). (Source)
The California Three Strikes Law was not followed by the massive increase in imprisonment that was predicted at the time. However, a 1998 Rand Report attributes that fact to falling crime rates of the time.
From an 1998 Rand Report compiled for the DOJ (Link):
California’s prison population has not increased nearly as much as was predicted. In fact, it has not increased any faster since three strikes went into effect in 1994 than it was increasing in the early 1990s.
The rate of imprisonment per conviction has indeed increased substantially, but it is too early yet to see an increase in the length of time served. The
arrest rate per crime has gone up dramatically, which should also contribute to prison growth. However, changes in some of the other factors have offset these. Most significant is the decline in the crime rate. When three strikes was implemented in 1994, crime in California had started to drop, but at that point it was unclear whether the drop was just normal, year-to-year statistical variation or the beginning of a trend. Between 1992 (the recent peak year) and 1996 (the latest year for which data is available), it has fallen about 25%. And fewer crimes mean fewer inmates, all other things being equal.
Racial Composition of California Three Strikers shows a severe race bias.