Under the "Three Strikes" law, which took effect in March, 1994, people convicted of a felony who had previously been convicted of a "violent" or "serious" felony (including most drug charges as well as burglary) are subject to severe punishment. Anyone with a previous conviction is sentenced to twice the term ordered by law, and must serve 80% of it. People with two previous felony convictions, however, are sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole for at least twenty-five years.
According to the California Department of Corrections, there were 5,887 persons serving "Three Strikes" sentences at the end of 2010. More than 19% of them had been sentenced for drug crimes, including 32 people sentenced to life for marijuana violations.
With two strikes in place, the "Three Strikes" law makes a life term in prison possible for offenders who are charged with so much as stealing a lollipop. Past precedents have shown third-strike offenders to be prescribed with prison time for offenses such as accepting stolen ArmorAll cans, stealing spare tires, or taking unattended bicycles from garages. The "Three Strikes" law punishes crimes of burglary harshly, but it also unfairly punishes those who suffer from the disease of addiction and are convicted of drug-related crimes. These individuals need medical help in being educated and rehabilitated, not prison sentences. Despite the inhumanity of the "Three Strikes" law, which is commonly aimed at drug offenders or people with histories of substance abuse, a growing opposition has so far been unsuccessful in amending the laws.
Proposition 36, the "treatment not jail" bill passed into law by California voters, does, however, amend the law. This bill allows those charged with simple possession of drugs to participate in drug rehabilitation treatment programs, rather than suffer a "Three Strikes" penalty, if the drug possession occurred more than five years after the defendant's release from prison or last felony or violent misdemeanor conviction.