Can you get a life sentence for stealing pizza? California’s Three Strikes Law

Last week, I wrote about California’s death penalty.  Today, I want to discuss another criminal sentencing law (“Three Strikes”) that many people find very interesting, but is often misunderstood.

Some people believe that California’s “Three Strikes” law allows defendants to go to jail for life for stealing a piece of pizza.  In theory, that is true under certain circumstances.  In practice, the Three Strikes law is much more involved.

The basic idea of the Three Strikes’ law is as follows:  if a defendant has committed two or more “serious” or “violent” felonies (i.e., has two “strike priors”), and then commits another felony, he or she can be sentenced to prison for 25-years-to-life.  A few things are worth mentioning:

  • Not all felonies are “serious” or “violent,” and they therefore would not qualify as a “strike prior.”  For example, possession of drugs or grand theft may be charged as felonies but they are not “serious” or “violent” felonies. The types of felonies that are “serious” or “violent,” and that qualify as “strike priors,” include things like murder, rape, child molestation, using a handgun to commit a crime, assault with a deadly weapon, etc.
  • Thus, the requirement that a defendant has two “strike priors” does not mean that he simply has two prior felony convictions – in essence, it means that he has two felony convictions for things that we consider particularly bad types of felonies.
  • If a defendant, after having been convicted of two felony “strike priors,” goes out and commits another felony, he may get sentenced to 25-years-to-life. However, the defendant has to have been convicted of those “strike priors” before committing the new felony.  The idea is that if a defendant, despite knowing that he has two or more prior felony convictions, goes out and commits another felony, he can receive a severe sentence.
  • The new (or third) felony does not have to be a “serious” or “violent” one.
  • The fact that a defendant is eligible for three strikes sentencing does not mean that he necessarily will receive a sentence of 25-years-to-life.  Both the prosecutor and the judge have discretion on that issue. They will consider the following things:
    • The defendant’s current (third) felony. The more serious the felony is, the more likely he will get a Three Strikes sentence (i.e., 25-years-to-life).
    • The defendant’s “strike priors.”  The more serious (and recent) the defendant’s strike priors are, the more likely he will get a Three Strikes sentence.
    • The defendant’s overall background.  An important part of this category is the defendant’s overall criminal record.  The more extensive his criminal past is, the more likely he will get a Three Strikes sentence.
  • All three of the above factors are considered, and no one of them is controlling.  A defendant who commits a very bad third felony, has previously been convicted of two or more very bad strike priors, and has a lengthy and serious criminal record may be likely to earn a Three Strikes’ sentence.
  • In contrast, a defendant may be less likely to get a 25-year-to-life sentence if his third felony is not as bad (e.g., drug possession or simple theft), his “strike priors” are not as bad (e.g., a technical robbery from a long time ago in which no one got hurt), and his criminal past is relatively minimal.

So, in theory, stealing a piece of pizza could get you 25-years-to-life, but it would require a lot of things:

  • you must have had two or more “strike priors”;
  • the pizza theft must be a felony (as opposed to a misdemeanor); and
  • the prosecutor and judge both feel that you deserve 25-years-to-life after considering your current crime (pizza theft), your “strike priors,” and your overall background (including your overall criminal record).

Like many laws, California’s Three Strikes law is not without controversy.  However, one should understand its basic requirements before deciding whether one feels it is sound public policy. What is the moral of all of this?  Don’t steal someone’s pizza…you aren’t likely to get life in prison, but it’s not a very nice thing to do!