When Mandatory Sentences Are No Longer Mandatory: Evaluating the Impact of Discretion on the California "Three Strikes" Law

Jennifer Walsh, California State University - Los Angeles

In 1994 California implemented its version of the "three-strikes law" which called for a mandatory minimum sentence of 25-years-to-life for all offenders with three qualifying felonies. Despite the mandatory provision, prosecutors were given the discretion to dismiss a prior strike offense when it was determined to be "in the furtherance of justice." This discretion was extended to judges as well by the California Supreme Court in the case People v. Superior Court (Romero) (53 Cal.Rptr.2d 789 (Cal. 1996). Although the use of discretion was initially expected to be limited in its application, a study of this discretion in San Diego County reveals that fewer than one-half of all eligible three-strike cases are actually sentenced to the full mandatory minimum of 25-years-to-life. In this paper I will discuss the reasons underlying this surprising finding and the potential implications that this finding has for the California criminal justice system.

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Updated 05/20/2006