A habitual criminal offender, also known as a repeat offender, refers to a person who has been previously convicted of one or more crimes in the past and is currently facing new charges. Although many habitual offenders tend to commit the same type of crime over and over again, a person does not necessarily have to commit the same crime in order to be called a repeat or habitual offender. 

Some common examples of crimes that habitual offenders often commit include:

  • Drug crimes (e.g., possession and intent to distribute);
  • Burglary;
  • Robbery; 
  • Instances of petty theft (e.g., shoplifting); 
  • Assault or aggravated assault;
  • Trespassing; 
  • Driving under the influence (“DUI”); and
  • Conducting business or selling merchandise without a proper license (e.g., street vendors). 

What is a Habitual Offender Statute?

To combat the issue and to deter individuals from becoming habitual offenders, many states have enacted some version of a habitual offender law. This is done with the hope that it would help curb the rate of repeated criminal activity. 

Depending on the state, a habitual offender law may increase the severity of punishment that a repeat offender receives. It may also intensify the number of requirements that a convicted offender must satisfy to complete their probation or parole period or alter the type of crime that they are charged with (e.g., misdemeanor vs. felony). 

Again, even though it is not necessary, a habitual offender law may also focus on a specific type of crime. For instance, if an individual commits and is convicted of enough prior incidents of misdemeanor petty theft, then the state statute may provide that their next instance of misdemeanor petty theft will constitute a felony crime. Thus, they may be issued a prison sentence of up to one year or greater if they are ever convicted of that crime again.

What Penalties Do Habitual Offenders Face?

The penalties issued during habitual offender sentencing hearings will largely depend on the type of crime committed and the laws of the jurisdiction prosecuting the case. In most cases, however, a habitual offender who has committed the same kind of offense should expect to receive a lengthier prison sentence or supervised probation. 

On the other hand, if the crime is violent in nature or is related to a drug trafficking conviction, then a defendant can face a prison sentence of at least 25 years to life. 

Some common penalties that a habitual offender may face for a conviction may include:

  • Higher criminal fines;
  • Longer jail or prison sentences;
  • Supervised (as opposed to unsupervised) probation;
  • Revocation or suspension of a driver or professional license;
  • Intense rehabilitation for substance abuse problems; and/or
  • The loss of certain civil liberties, such as the right to vote in an election, to own or possess a firearm, to serve on a jury, or retain custody of their children. 

In contrast, defendants who commit the same crime, but are first-time offenders, will typically receive a lighter sentence. Though this will usually depend on the type of crime that was committed. 

For instance, a first-time offender who is convicted of petty theft charges may only receive a fine of $1,000, whereas a habitual offender who has been convicted of committing petty theft several times might receive a fine of $5,000 and possibly, a prison sentence of one year or longer.

What Other Factors Impact the Kind of Penalty Faced by Habitual Offenders?

Aside from habitual offender laws and a judge’s discretion, there are some other factors that can impact the kind of penalty that a habitual offender receives. Some other factors that a court may consider when determining what type of penalty to issue a newly convicted habitual offender include:

  • Whether the case involves the same criminal charges as their last conviction; 
  • The length of time between the new offense and their last conviction;
  • Whether a habitual offender was already on probation for another crime when the new offense occurred;
  • Whether the crime in question qualifies as a felony, is violent in nature, or often involves violent circumstances (e.g., drug trafficking);
  • Whether a habitual offender has a substance abuse problem or suffers from a mental health disorder; and/or 
  • Whether a habitual offender continues to perpetuate crimes against the same victim or place of business (e.g., robbing the same jewelry store more than once). 

What is the “Three Strikes Law”?

Many states have enacted a version of what is known as a “Three Strikes Law”. Similar to the guidelines for crimes with mandatory sentencings, a Three Strikes Law is a law that requires a court to impose a harsher sentence on a defendant who has been convicted of a felony or other serious crime on three separate occasions or upon their third conviction. 

The purpose of having a Three Strikes Law is to ensure that repeat offenders receive a long enough, yet appropriate, criminal sentence that will prevent them from being released from jail several times only to return to society to repeat the same crimes again in the future. Legislatures also maintain that the goal behind these laws is to decrease the rate of crime by keeping habitual offenders in prison for longer periods of time.

Unfortunately, these laws are sometimes abused and may be used to punish habitual offenders who would better benefit from programs, such as rehabilitative services or therapists, as opposed to prison. 

For example, the law would be applied to a case in which a defendant who had a substance abuse problem was convicted numerous times for drug possession. Instead of assisting them in getting the help that they need through counseling or a rehabilitation program, the state would send them to prison only to be released and have them violate their parole or probation, or they would get caught and convicted again of the same crime in the future. 

As such, it is no surprise that this hotly debated topic has been revised by both federal and state legislatures. For instance, since the passing of the First Step Act, many states have revised their Three Strikes statutes to apply to only violent felony offenses and certain serious crimes. Some states, like Maryland, have even amended their laws to extend the number of strikes from three strikes to four strikes for habitual offenders.

Are there Mandatory Sentencing Guidelines for Habitual Offenders?

Mandatory sentencing guidelines, also known as mandatory minimum sentencing laws, refer to pre-established punishments that must be issued to a convicted defendant for committing a certain crime. 

For example, in California, a defendant who is charged and convicted of a felony offense after having been previously convicted of at least two serious or violent felony crimes in the past, must receive a minimum prison sentence of 25 years; though it could be longer.

In many cases, such punishments for habitual offenders may be set by a state statute. In other cases, whether an extensive sentence is issued will be determined by a judge. However, there are some crimes that will automatically result in a mandatory sentence for a repeat or habitual offender, such as violent felony crimes. 

Do I Need a Lawyer if I Am Facing Habitual Offender Charges?

While habitual offender charges can vary widely by state, most laws concerning habitual offenders require harsher punishments. Therefore, if you are facing new criminal charges as a habitual offender, then it is strongly recommended that you hire a local criminal lawyer as soon as possible. 

An experienced criminal law attorney can advise you of your legal rights, can explain how the habitual offender laws in your state may affect the outcome of your case, and can perform legal research to find out whether there are any defenses you can raise to reduce or eliminate the charges. Additionally, your lawyer can provide representation in court and can ensure that you comply with all necessary legal requirements.