Many states have what is referred to as “three strikes laws.” These laws will impose a harsher sentence after someone has been convicted of certain felonies three times. The penalty is generally a mandatory life sentence in prison.

There are also habitual offender laws, which are distinguished by the number of offenses needed to trigger the harsher penalty. Three strikes and habitual offender laws vary greatly from state to state and their application can turn on factors such as:

  • The length of time between crimes;
  • The seriousness of the crimes;
  • The order of the crimes committed; and
  • Discretion of the trial judge in sentencing under the law.

The purpose behind three strikes laws is to ensure that repeat offenders receive an appropriate sentence and stay in prison. Basically, the overall goal of these laws are to decrease the amount of crime by avoiding the possibility that certain habitual offenders will keep getting out on shorter sentences of parole.

Which States Have a Three Strikes Law?

As of December 2018, the following states have enacted the three strikes law:

  • New York (since 1797);
  • Maryland (since 1975 but amended in 1994);
  • Delaware (since 1973);
  • Texas (since 1952);
  • Washington (since 1993);
  • California (since 1994);
  • Colorado (since 1994);
  • Connecticut (since 1994);
  • Indiana (since 1994);
  • Kansas (since 1994);
  • Maryland (since 1994);
  • New Mexico (since 1994);
  • North Carolina (since 1994);
  • Virginia (since 1994);
  • Louisiana (since 1994);
  • Wisconsin (since 1994);
  • Tennessee (since 1994);
  • Georgia (since 1994);
  • Arkansas (since 1995);
  • Florida (since 1995);
  • Montana (since 1995);
  • Nevada (since 1995);
  • New Jersey (since 1995);
  • North Dakota (since 1995);
  • Pennsylvania (since 1995);
  • South Carolina (since 1995);
  • Utah (since 1995);
  • Vermont (since 1995);
  • Arizona (since 2005); and
  • Massachusetts (since 2012).

While Three Strikes laws are controversial, it is not common for states to repeal them. Several states have amended them, either to limit them to only apply in serious felonies (like Delaware) or even extending the “strikes” to four (like Maryland).

The Three Strikes Law Under Federal and State Laws

In 1994, a federal law was passed to address crime in America. The law, which had a provision implementing the three strikes rule, is called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Under the federal law, a person will receive a mandatory life prison sentence without the possibility of parole if they have three federal convictions for serious violent felonies or crimes relating to drug trafficking.

Many states also have enacted three strike laws for repeat offenders. Over half of the states have some variation of these laws. Some variations between the state laws include:

  • Whether the laws apply to felonies, misdemeanors or both;
  • Specific crimes the laws cover; and
  • Severity of punishments.

Previously, California was thought to have the most severe three strikes law in the nation. However, in 2012, California voters passed proposition 36 which made the law a little less strict. To receive a 25 year to life sentence, the third felony has to be classified as serious or violent.

Previously, any felony would trigger this sentence if the person already had two strikes. Proposition 36 also made the law retroactive and allows for possible re-sentencing for those previously convicted of a non-serious or non-violent crime on their third strike.

Despite the reform, California is still serious about punishing habitual offenders. The law left open the possibility of a life term for certain third strike non-violent crimes. These include certain sex crimes, crimes involving a firearm and for those offenders who had previous convictions for rape, murder or child molestation.

In addition, California's three strikes law applies to some felonies committed when the person was a juvenile. The law also does not take into account the length of time between felonies, so a third strike can apply even if the first two felonies were committed many years before.

What are Some Criticisms of Three Strikes Laws?

The greatest criticism of three strikes laws is that the punishments are often extremely disproportionate to the crime the defendant was arrested for committing. For example, if a state has a broader law that covers a variety of crimes, someone who receives a third conviction for a less serious felony could be facing many years in prison.

That same person would get a significantly lesser sentence for the same crime if the three strikes law was not in effect. A second major criticism of three strikes laws is that judges often apply the penalties discriminatorily based on a person’s race or socioeconomic status.

Another major criticism is how wobbler laws fit into these regulations. Wobbler laws are crimes that can be considered either misdemeanors or felonies. Thus, if a defendant has two previous felonies on record and commits a crime which is considered a "wobbler," the court has the discretion to charge the crime as a felony. This allows the court to hand down a greater sentence even if the crime would normally be a misdemeanor.

  • A defendant who committed two felonies and then a wobbler could very likely be subject to the three strikes law.
  • A defendant who commits a wobbler and then two felonies would not trigger the three strikes law. The defendant might receive a much lighter sentence for the third crime.

Because of these criticisms, many people do not favor these laws and want them abolished or limited to only very serious felonies, such as high level drug crimes and violent crimes.

Do I Need to Consult with a Criminal Defense Attorney?

Three strikes laws carry very serious consequences for repeat felony offenders and vary greatly amongst the states. If you are being charged under a three strikes law, you should consider hiring a local criminal defense attorney to review your case. An attorney can inform you about the impact of your state’s law and help defend your rights in court.