A majority of states have statutes that will increase the punishment for those previously convicted of a crime. These laws are often referred to as habitual offender statutes, recidivist statutes, persistent offender statutes, or "three-strikes" laws.
Typically, enhancement statutes apply when the defendant, having already committed and been charged with a prior criminal offense, commits another offense. Usually, the prior offenses are felonies; however, some states have enacted legislation that enhances punishments for those who repeatedly commit petty offenses or misdemeanors, particularly repeated drunk driving offenses. Enhancement may also occur if there has been a relatively short time period between offenses.
States may enact either general or specific enhancement statutes. General enhancement statutes apply generally to repeat criminal offenders. Specific enhancement statutes are statutes that apply to repeat offenders of a particular crime. For example, enhancement for repeat drug offenses may be governed by a specific drug enhancement statute.
Criminal enhancement statutes are created by the legislature and have been challenged in the courts on multiple grounds. For the most part, however, enhancement statutes have been upheld as valid on constitutional grounds. Where the enhancement has been found invalid, the justification is usually that the sentence imposed was excessive.
The 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments, regulates how heavy the sentences can be. This means two things. First, enhancement sentencing can be excessive when the prior crimes did not involve actual or threatened violence. However, the sentence can also be enhanced for “serious” crimes. “Serious” non-violent crimes are usually felonies, such as burglary or drunk driving with children inside the vehicle.
Second, the penalty imposed should not be disproportionate to the present crime committed. For example, it would be very unconstitutional if a traffic violation such as running a red light were punished by life imprisonment.
Sentence enhancements serve two purposes. First, the enhancements serve to deter other would-be criminals from committing the same crime. Second, giving longer punishments helps to keep the criminals in prison and therefore, away from the public.
If you have been charged with a crime, hiring a criminal defense attorney may be vital to your case. If you have previously been convicted of a crime and are currently charged with a new crime, then reviewing the state laws to determine whether there is an enhancement statute will be important to determine whether or not your sentence may be enhanced if you are convicted.