Many states have three strikes laws, also known as a three strikes rule. These laws impose harsher sentences on individuals who have been convicted of certain felonies three times. In most cases, the penalty upon the third conviction is a mandatory sentence of life in prison.
Are Three Strikes Laws the Same as Habitual Offender Laws?
No, although both involve defendants convicted of multiple crimes, they are not the same. As noted above, three strikes laws apply to certain felonies. Habitual offender laws, on the other hand, can be applied on any subsequent offense after the first.
These two laws do have similar goals. They serve to deter future similar behavior from the defendant. They are also an attempt to ensure repeat offenders receive appropriate sentences and serve sufficient time before being released on parole.
The application of both of these types of laws varies by state. The application of these laws can depend on factors including:
- Length of time between the crimes;
- Seriousness of the crimes;
- The order in which the crimes were committed; and/or
- The discretion of the judge in sentencing under local laws.
What is the “3 Strikes You’re Out” Law?
Most people hear 3 strikes and you’re out and think of baseball. However, this refers to laws exacted that say three felonies, and you’re out of society. States began implementing these laws in the 1990s in response to concerns that habitual violent offenders were being released from jails and prison too quickly and were back on the streets.
There is no consistent definition of what it means to be “out” under three strikes laws. It can range from a longer sentence such as 10, 15, or 25 years to life in prison. In some states, a defendant is allowed the possibility of parole after a certain number of years served in a life sentence. However, in other states, parole is not an option.
Which States Have a Three Strikes Law?
There is a lengthy list of states that have a third strike law. These include:
- Arkansas (since 1995);
- Arizona (since 2005);
- California (since 1994);
- Colorado (since 1994);
- Connecticut (since 1994);
- Delaware (since 1973);
- Florida (since 1995);
- Georgia (since 1994);
- Indiana (since 1994);
- Kansas (since 1994);
- Louisiana (since 1994);
- Maryland (since 1975 but amended in 1994);
- Massachusetts (since 2012);
- Montana (since 1995);
- Nevada (since 1995);
- New Jersey (since 1995);
- New Mexico (since 1994);
- New York (since 1797);
- North Carolina (since 1994);
- North Dakota (since 1995);
- Pennsylvania (since 1995);
- South Carolina (since 1995);
- Tennessee (since 1994);
- Texas (since 1952);
- Utah (since 1995);
- Vermont (since 1995);
- Virginia (since 1994);
- Washington (since 1993); and
- Wisconsin (since 1994).
Three strikes laws can be viewed as controversial and it is common for states to repeal them. Some states have amended them to only apply to certain serious felonies (Delaware) or to extend the number of strikes allowed to 4 (Maryland).
Many of these original three strikes laws did not allow a judge discretion and required a longer mandatory sentence. Many states have passed reforms eliminating mandatory longer sentences and giving the judge discretion to hand down a sentence that fits the particular crime and defendant. Other common reforms include:
- The elimination of life without parole sentences;
- Removing non-violent crimes as a “strike;” and/or
- Allowing the possibility of parole earlier in a sentence.
What are the Three Strikes Law Under Federal and State Laws?
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 is a federal law enacted in 1994 that provides a three strikes law definition for federal laws. If a defendant is convicted of three serious felonies or crimes related to drug trafficking, they will receive a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
As noted above, a large number of states have passed three strikes laws for repeat offenders. Many of these states have some variation within the three strikes law. These variations may include:
- If the law applies to felonies, misdemeanors, or both;
- What specific crimes are included; and/or
- The severity of punishment.
Prior to 2012, California had what may have been the most severe three strikes law in the United States. It was amended by proposition 36 and made less strict. In order to receive a sentence of 25 years to life in prison, a defendant’s third felony must be classified as violent or serious.
Prior to this amendment, any felony conviction would trigger the mandatory sentence if the defendant already had 2 strikes. The amendment also made the law retroactive, allowing for the possibility of resentencing for defendants previously convicted of non-violent or non-serious felonies on their third strike.
Despite this amendment, California still seriously punishes habitual offenders. The law still provides for the possibility of a life sentence for certain non-violent third strike felonies. These may include certain sex crimes, crimes involving a firearm and/or a life sentence for those defendants with previous convictions for rape, murder, or child molestation.
Additionally, the three strikes law in California applies to certain felonies committed when a defendant was a juvenile. The California law does not consider the length of time between convictions, so a third strike may apply even when previous felony convictions were many years prior.
What are Some Criticisms of Three Strikes Laws?
There are some criticisms of the three strikes legislation. The greatest of these is that in some cases, the punishment received for a conviction is extremely disproportionate to the crime the defendant was convicted of. For example, if a law covers a broad range of crimes, a defendant can face many years in prison for a less serious felony conviction. If the three strikes law was not in effect, that defendant may have received a significantly shorter sentence for the same crime.
An additional criticism of three strikes laws is based on the court’s discretion. In some cases, a judge may apply a penalty discriminatorily based on the defendant’s socioeconomic status or race.
A third major criticism of three strikes laws is that some wobbler offenses may be included. These types of offenses can be considered as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances. Therefore, if a defendant has two previous felony convictions and is charged with a wobbler crime, the court has the discretion to consider the third crime as a felony. This permits the court to impose a harsher sentence even if the crime committed would normally be classified as a misdemeanor.
To compare, a defendant who is convicted of 2 felonies and a subsequent wobbler crime can be subject to the three strikes law. However, a defendant who is convicted of a wobbler crime and then 2 subsequent felonies may not trigger the three strikes law, even though the crimes may have been exactly the same. This creates a discrepancy in sentencing.
Because of the criticisms discussed above, many individuals do not favor three strikes laws. Some would like them to be abolished. Others would like to limit them to very serious felonies, including high level drug crimes and violent crimes.
Do I Need to Consult with a Criminal Defense Attorney?
Yes, if you are facing a felony charge and/or possible implementation of the three strikes law, it is extremely important to consult with an experienced criminal lawyer. A felony conviction can have serious and life-long consequences and possibly subject you to a three strikes law, even many years later.
Additionally, three strikes laws vary greatly across the states. These laws carry very serious penalties for repeat offenders. An attorney can review the facts of your case, advise you on what laws apply to you, and represent you during any court proceedings.