Three strikes laws are state laws that provide for a much harsher punishment, generally a life sentence, the third time a person commits a felony. There are also habitual offender laws, which are distinguished by the number of offenses needed to trigger the harsher penalty. For example, in North Carolina, a person is considered a habitual offender on their fourth felony. 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 felonies
- The seriousness of the felonies
- The order of the crimes committed
- Discretion of the trial judge in sentencing under the law
Which States Have Three Strikes Laws?
Currently there are 28 states with heavier sentences for repeat offenders. Massachusetts became the latest state to punish repeat offenders when it passed its own version of the law in 2012. The states which carry three strikes or habitual offender laws are: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.
Which States Have the Most Severe Three Strikes Laws?
Previously, California was thought to have the most severe three strikes law in the nation. However, in 2000, California began to relax the penalties when voters passed Proposition 36. Instead of drug possession carrying a possible 25 years to life, Proposition 36 allowed for the possibility of drug treatment. More recently in 2012, California voters passed a new version of Proposition 36. The changes include:
- A life sentence can only be imposed if the 3rd felony is serious or violent
- The law is retroactive and allows for possible re-sentencing for those previously convicted of a non-serious or non-violent crime on their 3rd strike
Despite the reform, California is still serious about punishing re-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.
Some states apply the "strike" to the second serious, violent felony. For example, in Georgia and Tennessee a felon convicted of a two serious or violent crimes, such as murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, or rape, must receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Many other states require a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the third violent felony a person commits. Other states with more lenient three strikes laws, such as New Hampshire, have maximum prison term of 30 years for the third felony conviction.
Why Do States Use Three Strike Laws?
States implement three strike laws to ensure that repeat offenders are constantly imprisoned. The logic is that while a criminal is in prison he or she can’t be out in public hurting anyone. Since three strikes laws apply to defendants who commit multiple crimes in succession, these laws aim to keep criminals that are most likely to re-offend in prison.
What Disadvantages Are There to 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. For example, a defendant who steals some videotapes could receive 25 years in prison under the three strikes law. That same defendant would only spend a few months for the same crime if the three strikes law wasn’t in place.
The other major criticism of three strikes laws is that judges often apply the penalties discriminatorily Racial disparities in prison sentences, a problem prior to the implementation these laws, have widened even further under the three strikes system.
Misdemeanors and Three Strikes Laws
Wobbler laws, or crimes which can be either misdemeanors or felonies, are very important to three strikes laws. 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.
Essentially, a defendant who committed two felonies and then a wobbler could very likely be subject to the three strikes law. Conversely, a defendant who commits a wobbler and then two felonies would not trigger the three strikes law. The defendant might get a few years for the second felony.
Are Three Strikes Laws Constitutional?
Yes, three strikes laws are largely constitutional, although they are often challenged. For example, California's Three Strikes law was challenged as an unconstitutional violation of the Eight Amendment, which protects a person from cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court upheld the law, even when applied to minor felonies, such as stealing golf clubs.
Do I Need a Criminal Law Attorney?
Three strikes laws carry very serious consequences for repeat felony offenders. If you are being charged under a three strikes law, speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney right away.