Policymaking by Decree: Assessing the Impact of Internal Policies on the Implmentation of the California 'Three Strikes' Law"

Jennifer Walsh, California State University - Los Angeles

In January 2001, newly elected Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley issued a directive instructing his deputies to exercise their statutory discretion to "strike a strike" in all third strike cases that did not involve a serious or violent third strike offense. The result of this new policy is that approximately two-thirds of the eligible three-strikers do not face the mandatory minimum sentence. Instead, the majority are reclasdsified as "second strikers," subject to double the usual punishment instead of the minimum 25 years to life.

This change in policy in California's most populous county highlights the tremendous impact that internal policymaking can have on the implementation of statutory requirements imposed by the legislature. In this paper, I will review the three-strike policies of district attorneys within the state's most populous counties in order to assess the practical impact that these policies are having on the application of the law. In addition, I am planning to use available county and statewide data to explore a relationship between the changes in internal policy and subsequent changes in rates of offending and rates of incarceration.

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Updated 05/20/2006