Understanding Three Strikes Laws
What does the Three Strikes Law Mean for You?
By: Kevin Chern
Three Strikes legislation has been enacted by many states as a way to target repeat offenders.
After three separate felony convictions, or “strikes,” convicts are “kicked out” of society, meaning a third arrest could send you to jail for life.
Many Three Strikes laws count only violent or serious crimes for the first two strikes, but have a much lower threshold for the third.
Any felony, such as shoplifting or forgery, may be counted as strike three and produce a sentence of 25 years to life.
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History of Three Strikes Laws
Three strikes laws, officially known in many states as habitual offender laws, get their name from the baseball rules of “three strikes and you’re out.”
The reasoning behind these laws is that those who repeatedly commit felonies likely pose a serious threat to society and should be imprisoned for the greater good.
Though the practice of increasing penalties for repeat offenders is fairly common and well-established, the modern three strikes law first appeared in the early 1990s in Washington State.
Shortly after, California adopted a strict three strikes law, which critics have said was an emotional reaction to a murder committed by a twice-convicted felon.
Since three strikes laws’ popularity during the 1990s, many states have amended or repealed the provisions of their three strikes laws, partly because some studies have found them ineffective at reducing overall crime rates and responsible for crowding prisons.
Some states have “habitual offender” provisions that only affect those convicted of sex crimes or DUI.
And, in some places three-peat offenders are eligible for very long sentences, but not definitely doomed to life behind bars.
Which States Have Some Form of Three Strikes Laws?
The following information is current as of August, 2009 and is subject to change since our last update. This list is for informational purposes only.
Criticism and Controversy of Three Strikes Laws
Since three strikes laws were introduced, opponents have criticized them for oversimplifying the criminal justice system, leading to prison crowding and having little or no impact on real crime rates.
Some believe that automatic sentences force judges to view crimes as black and white, when real situations often involve gray area.
And research has offered support for opponents of three strikes laws.
In 2004, a study by Vincent Shiraldi and Geri Silva found that 65% of third-strike convicts in California jails were imprisoned for nonviolent crimes, and 25% of all inmates were in for third-strike offenses. This suggests an excess of incarceration, since some lawmakers have moved to release nonviolent offenders early to ease prison crowding in recent months.
Perhaps more troubling was the finding that black criminals were affected by the three strikes law 12 times more often than whites.
But recent research shows that certain side effects of three strikes legislation pose a completely different problem.
A study published in 2008 examined one unintended effect of the three strikes legislation in California.
Radha Iyengar, the study’s author, found that criminals with two strikes – that is, those eligible for a three strike life imprisonment sentence if convicted of another felony – were 20% more likely to commit violent crimes than those with no prior strikes.
This suggests that the guarantee of a life sentence forces two-strike criminals to weigh their options as follows:
- Don’t commit any more felonies, and stay out of jail, OR
- Commit any felony and get a life sentence.
So, while criminals with two strikes were 28% less likely to commit a third felony overall according to the study, those who do decide to return to crime are more likely to commit big crimes.
After all, the penalty for felony shoplifting and the penalty for armed bank robbery would be the same if either crime was a third strike.
How Do Three Strikes Laws Affect You?
Keep in mind that even states that do not require life sentences for third-strike criminals often have mandatory sentence increases for repeat offenders.
And three strikes legislation is introduced and challenged fairly often. If you’re interested in learning how three strikes legislation will affect you, consider contacting a criminal defense lawyer in your area.
Simply fill out our criminal case review form or call toll-free 877-445-1059 to get help today.
The above summary of Three Strikes Laws is by no means all-inclusive and is not intended to provide legal advice. Laws may have changed since our last update. For the latest information on Three Strikes Laws, speak to a criminal defense attorney in your area.