3-Strikes Law

What does the District Attorney think about the 3-strikes law?

Solano County District Attorney David Paulson, like all of the 58 elected DAs in California, supports the 3-strikes law. The imprisonment of repeat serious and/or violent offenders is appropriate for certain crimes and criminals and is necessary to ensure public safety.

Moreover, the 3-strikes law has proven to be an effective deterrent to crime. The rate of serious/violent crime in California has dropped by almost twice the national average since the 3-strikes law went into effect. No logical explanation, other than the 3-strikes law, can account for this dramatic drop in crime. Since 1994, there have been over 2 million fewer victims of crime in California along with a savings of billions of dollars in the societal impact costs of crime - directly as a result of the 3-strikes law.

Each year since 1996, just two years after the implementation of the 3-strikes law, the number of convictions statewide has steadily declined, as those who repeatedly commit serious/violent crime have been incarcerated and thus unable to re-offend.  In 1996, a 3-strikes sentence was imposed on 1,317 defendants, but the number dropped to 741 in 2000 and to 361 in 2005.  During 2009, there were 354,675 felony prosecutions resulting in 42,581 commitments to state prison.  However, in that year, across the entire State of California only 312 defendants received a 3-strikes sentence.  As a result, less than 0.09% of all persons prosecuted for a felony in 2009 were ultimately sentenced under the 3-strikes law.

Statewide 3-Strikes Commitments by Year

                    Data source: California Department Corrections and Rehabilitation
                            2010 data through October 30, 2010

It is important for the public to know that prosecutors and courts are exercising their discretion and using the 3-strikes law in precisely the way it was intended - protecting the people of California from repeat victimization by repeat offenders.

"3-STRIKES LAW ENSURES PUBLIC SAFETY FOR ALL CALIFORNIANS"

In the spring of 2006, the Daily Republic (Fairfield), the Reporter (Vacaville), and the Times Herald (Vallejo) featured an opinion article (op-ed) by Solano County District Attorney David W. Paulson regarding his strong opposition to any proposed changes in California's three strikes law:


An Associated Press story in last Monday's newspaper called attention to a controversial initiative co-sponsored by Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley. This proposal is dubbed the "Three Strikes Reform Act of 2006," but make no mistake: that description would only be accurate if you think that "reform" means letting dangerous criminals out of prison. The reality is that this initiative weakens the most successful public safety tool we have in California, eliminating the discretion that is currently granted to elected district attorneys and judges and potentially releasing thousands of repeat criminals back into our communities.

It is a proposed solution for a problem that doesn't exist, and it creates huge problems for public safety officials across California. Consider the example of a violent felon who has previous convictions for voluntary manslaughter and attempted murder and who is arrested with a loaded semi-automatic handgun, conceivably intending to kill again. Under the current three strikes law, he can be sentenced to prison for life. However, in order to qualify for a three strikes prosecution under Mr. Cooley's "reform" proposal, that same felon would have to actually use the gun against yet another innocent victim. Is that your idea of reform? It's not mine.

Since its adoption by the Legislature and later the electorate in 1994, the three strikes law has had a dramatic impact on crime in California. In fact, over the past 11 years crime in California has dropped at a rate of nearly double the national average. There is no explanation for such a significant decline other than the three strikes law.

The three strikes law grants wide discretion to local District Attorneys, and from the beginning we have implemented the law in a manner consistent with local standards. Following a Supreme Court decision in 1996, local and appellate courts have also exercised their discretion in determining which defendants are the "worst of the worst." Currently, there are 7813 career criminals spending at least 25 years in prison under three strikes. These habitual offenders are in jail where they belong, not in our neighborhoods committing more crimes and creating more victims.

In Solano County, I have filed 70 three strikes cases, and 64 of those cases have progressed through the courts to sentencing. Thirty-five defendants have received a three strikes sentence, and an additional 17 have received either a two strike or felony sentence. The number of defendants charged under three strikes between 1994 and 2003 in Solano County was less than 0.9% of all felons who were prosecuted, and the number of defendants sentenced under three strikes during the same period was less than 0.2% of all those who were sent to prison.

Significant to my point that "reform" is unnecessary, this same trend has been documented statewide. Last year, there were only 239 three strikes commitments in the entire state, 1000 fewer than in 1996. Solano County had only 1, and Los Angeles County had 55. Without a doubt, we are approaching a plateau in the annual number of three strikes sentences. Three strikes has slammed shut what was once a revolving door for career criminals.

Now, in a desperate attempt to justify his proposal, Los Angeles District Attorney Cooley claims that other elected DAs and judges have abused their discretion in prosecuting and sentencing defendants under the current three strikes law. In response, DAs from across the state have repeatedly challenged Mr. Cooley to provide an example of a case he considers to be an abuse of either prosecutorial or judicial discretion. Notably, he has never been able to cite even a single case.

Nonetheless, the myth continues to prevail over truth in most of the articles and editorials about the three strikes law. There is no "pizza thief" who was sentenced to life in prison under three strikes. And, the current offense for the vast majority of three strikes inmates is a serious or violent felony, not a petty crime. During 2003-2004, only eight defendants in the entire state were convicted under three strikes with a current petty theft offense and only 17 were convicted for simple drug possession. Moreover, in all of these cases, each of the defendants had a long history of prior serious and/or violent convictions which warranted a three strikes punishment. Why should the public have to wait until there is another victim before locking these career criminals up for life?

Los Angeles DA Cooley stands alone among the state's prosecutors in support of his initiative. The California District Attorneys Association, representing the 58 elected DAs and almost 3000 deputy prosecutors, voted overwhelmingly to oppose the "Three Strikes Reform Act of 2006", as well as a second ill-conceived initiative proposed by one of Cooley's deputies, and Senate Bill 1642, a legislative version of Cooley's initiative that was introduced by Los Angeles area State Senator Gloria Romero.

Prosecutors throughout California know that the three strikes law works. So do victims and others who value safe neighborhoods and safe streets. They voted for the three strikes law in 1994, and in 2004 they voted to retain it. Three strikes has resulted in more than 2 million fewer victims of crime, along with savings of billions of dollars in the societal impact costs of crime. Californians recognize that prosecutors and courts are exercising their discretion and using three strikes in precisely the way it was intended - protecting the people of California from repeat victimization by repeat offenders.

Please join me and California's other elected DAs, the California District Attorneys Association, and virtually every law enforcement organization throughout the state in opposing any attempt to undermine and weaken our three strikes law.

David W. Paulson
Solano County District Attorney
Immediate Past President, California District Attorneys Association


What others are saying about 3-strikes...


IACJ Journal - "Debunking the Myths Attacking California's
Three Strikes Law and Demonstrating Its Effectiveness in
Protecting the People of California"

District Attorney Paulson is a Past President of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Advancement of Criminal Justice (IACJ). He remains active with IACJ, serving as the Editor in Chief of The Journal of the Institute for the Advancement of Criminal Justice. The premier issue of the IACJ Journal, published in June 2007, is entitled "Debunking the Myths Attacking California's Three Strikes Law and Demonstrating Its Effectiveness in Protecting the People of California."  Please click to view a pdf version of the Journal.

San Francisco Chronicle - "Escaping the Myth of
'Three Strikes' State Prison Law"

Debra J. Saunders has written an interesting piece on 3-strikes, published online at SFGate.com (San Francisco Chronicle).  Looking back over the years since 3-strikes was approved by California voters, Saunders concludes, "Almost 15 years later, it turns out many of the so-called experts were wrong - and the voters were right.  In approving the tough-on-crime measure, California residents didn't have to pay for an inmate population explosion or a bunch of new prisons.  What voters got instead was a law that, for the most part, has worked the way it was supposed to."   She is critical of policy leaders who want to neuter or even get rid of the law.  Instead, Saunders asserts, state leaders should "celebrate the fact that California prisons are protecting the public by keeping violent, serious and repeat offenders behind bars."

What factors does the District Attorney use to
decide whether to pursue a 3-strikes case?

Among the "interest of justice" factors which are considered in deciding whether to pursue a case under the 3-strikes law are the following:

1. The nature and circumstances of the present offense, including:
a. Seriousness of present offense
i. Serious or violent
ii. Extent of Injury
iii. Weapon involvement
b. Extent of defendant's involvement
c. Whether defendant was on probation or parole or in prison at time of offense
d. Other facts relating to the crime(s) in either aggravation or mitigation under California Rules of Court 4.421(a) and 4.423(a).

2. The particulars of the defendant's background, character and prospects, including:
a. Defendant's age and history or pattern of criminality
b. Facts of strike priors
c. Age/remoteness of strike priors
d. Length of time between criminal acts and custodial status during that time
e. Dangerousness to community
f. History of violence
g. History of weapons possession or use
h. Number of prison commitments
i. Other facts in aggravation or mitigation relating to the defendant under California Rules of Court 4.421(b) and 4.423(b).

3. After consideration of these factors does the defendant and/or the defendant's conduct fall outside the spirit of the 3-strikes law, either in whole or in part? (see People v. Williams (1998) 17 Cal.4th 148.)

How many 3-strikes convictions has
the District Attorney obtained?

Since the 3-strikes law went into effect in California in 1994, the Solano County District Attorney has filed 84 3-strikes cases. 79 cases have been adjudicated, and 5 cases are still pending trial. Of the completed cases, 43 defendants have received a life sentence under the provisions of the 3-strikes law. An additional 20 defendants have been sentenced to either a 2-strike or a felony sentence.

1994:
Number of felony cases filed: 3,159
Number of state prison commitments: 367
Number of 3-strike cases filed: 3 (all concluded in 3-strikes commitment)
Number of 3-strike commitments: 0

1995:
Number of felony cases filed: 3,180
Number of state prison commitments: 424
Number of 3-strike cases filed: 6 (all concluded in 3-strikes commitment)
Number of 3-strike commitments: 1

1996:
Number of felony cases filed: 3,174
Number of state prison commitments: 412
Number of 3-strike cases filed: 4 (all concluded in 3-strikes commitment)
Number of 3-strike commitments: 5

1997:
Number of felony cases filed: 3,253
Number of state prison commitments: 379
Number of 3-strike cases filed: 7 (5 concluded in 3-strikes commitment)
Number of 3-strike commitments: 4

1998:
Number of felony cases filed: 3,210
Number of state prison commitments: 450
Number of 3-strike cases filed: 2 (1 concluded in 3-strikes commitment)
Number of 3-strike commitments: 6

1999:
Number of felony cases filed: 3,355
Number of state prison commitments: 446
Number of 3-strike cases filed: 8 (3 concluded in 3-strikes commitment)
Number of 3-strike commitments: 1

2000:
Number of felony cases filed: 3,330
Number of state prison commitments: 307
Number of 3-strike cases filed: 9 (4 concluded in 3-strikes commitment)
Number of 3-strike commitments: 2

2001:
Number of felony cases filed: 3,649
Number of state prison commitments: 343
Number of 3-strike cases filed: 11 (5 concluded in 3-strikes commitment)
Number of 3-strike commitments: 4

2002:
Number of felony cases filed: 3,661
Number of state prison commitments: 433
Number of 3-strike cases filed: 9 (4 concluded in 3-strikes commitment)
Number of 3-strike commitments: 5

2003:
Number of felony cases filed: 3,795
Number of state prison commitments: 478
Number of 3-strike cases filed: 4 (2 concluded in 3-strikes commitment)
Number of 3-strike commitments: 3

2004:
Number of felony cases filed: 4,122
Number of state prison commitments: 513
Number of 3-strike cases filed: 6 (1 concluded in 3-strikes commitment)
Number of 3-strike commitments: 3

2005:
Number of felony cases filed: 3,804
Number of state prison commitments: 488
Number of 3-strike cases filed: 1 (1 concluded in 3-strikes commitment)
Number of 3-strike commitments: 1

2006:
Number of felony cases filed: 4,198
Number of state prison commitments: 479
Number of 3-strike cases filed: 2 (1 concluded in 3-strikes commitment)
Number of 3-strike commitments: 3

2007:
Number of felony cases filed: 3,961
Number of state prison commitments: 265
Number of 3-strike cases filed: 5 (2 concluded in 3-strikes commitment; 1 pending trial)
Number of 3-strike commitments: 3

2008:
Number of felony cases filed: 3,820
Number of state prison commitments: 312
Number of 3-strike cases filed: 2 (1 concluded in 3-strikes commitment)
Number of 3-strike commitments: 2

2009:
Number of felony cases filed: 3,722
Number of state prison commitments: (data not yet published by DOJ)
Number of 3-strike cases filed: 2 (both pending trial)
Number of 3-strike commitments: 0

2010 (through July):
Number of felony cases filed: 2093
Number of state prison commitments: (data not yet published by DOJ)
Number of 3-strike cases filed: 3 (2 pending trial)
Number of 3-strike commitments: 0

Solano County District Attorney David Paulson is committed to seeking a 3-strikes sentence only in those cases where the facts of the crime and the defendant's criminal history clearly warrant a sentence of imprisonment for life.