Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Three strikes law
Three strikes laws are a category of statutes enacted by state governments in the United States, beginning in the 1990s, to mandate long periods of imprisonment for persons convicted of a felony on three (or more) separate occasions. The term is borrowed from baseball and is generally colloquial in its usage, as such statutes are most often known officially as mandatory sentencing laws or some variant thereof.
The underlying philosophy of these laws is that any person who commits more than two felonies can justifiably be considered incorrigible and chronically criminal, and that permanent imprisonment is then mandated for the safety of society.
While the practice of imposing longer prison sentences on repeat offenders than on first-time offenders who commit the same crime is nothing new in American states (New York State, for example, has a Persistent Felony Offender law that dates back to the late 19th Century), such sentences were not compulsory in every single case, and judges had much more discretion as to what term of incarceration should be imposed. The first true "three strikes" law, with virtually no exceptions provided, was not enacted until 1993, when Washington state voters approved Initiative 593. California followed one year later, when that state's voters approved Proposition 184 by an overwhelming majority of 72% in favor to 28% against.
The concept swiftly spread to other states: By 2004, 26 states and the federal government had laws that satisfy the general criteria for designation as "three strikes" statutes — namely, that a third felony conviction brings a sentence of life in prison, with no parole possible until a long period of time, most commonly 25 years, has been served.
The exact application of the three-strikes laws varies considerably from state to state. Some states require all three felony convictions to be for violent crimes in order for the mandatory sentence to be pronounced, while others — most notably California — mandate the enhanced sentence for any third felony conviction so long as the first two felonies were deemed to be either "violent" or "serious," or both.
Some unusual scenarios have arisen — particularly in California, which punishes shoplifting and similar crimes as felony petty theft if the person committing such a crime has a prior conviction for any form of stealing, including robbery or burglary, no matter how long ago the original crime had been committed.
As a result, some defendants have been sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for shoplifting golf clubs (Gary Ewing) or videotapes (Leandro Andrade). Furthermore, in some states, like California, the parole board has carte blanche to grant or withhold parole for any rational reason. Therefore, a sentence of 25 years to life will actually be a life sentence in most cases, because the parole board is unlikely to grant parole for the vast majority of eligible prisoners.
Furthermore, it is also possible for a defendant to be charged and convicted with two "third strikes" in the same proceeding, and to be given two separate sentences to run consecutively, which together make for a sentence of 50 years to life (the actual sentence given to Andrade).
In turn, such sentences have prompted harsh criticism not only within the United States, but also from outside the country as well.
U.S. Supreme Court response
On March 5, 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court held by a 5-4 majority that such sentences do not violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment." In two separate opinions handed down on the same day, the court upheld California's three-strikes law against an attack on direct appeal from conviction, Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11 (2003), and a collateral attack through a petition for habeas corpus, Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63 (2003).
Writing for the majority in Ewing, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor analyzed the serious problem of recidivism among criminals in California and concluded:
- We do not sit as a "superlegislature" to second-guess these policy choices. It is enough that the State of California has a reasonable basis for believing that dramatically enhanced sentences for habitual felons advances the goals of its criminal justice system in any substantial way ... To be sure, Ewing's sentence is a long one. But it reflects a rational legislative judgment, entitled to deference, that offenders who have committed serious or violent felonies and who continue to commit felonies must be incapacitated.
Failed California amendment
The amendment would have required the third felony to be either "violent" and/or "serious" in order to result in a 25-years-to-life sentence.
Some critics have argued that three-strikes laws violate the Double Jeopardy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, though few American judges take this argument seriously. In the vast majority of U.S. courts, it is generally accepted that double jeopardy is not a problem because the defendant is not being retried or punished again for the set of facts giving rise to the previous convictions; the fact of the previous convictions is merely being used as evidence of the defendant's incorrigible character in order to enhance the sentence for the third conviction.
The U.S. Supreme Court has already upheld the constitutionality, in general, of using the fact of prior convictions as an aggravating factor at sentencing for the purpose of enhancing the sentence. Almendarez-Torres v. United States, 523 U.S. 224 (1998).
In addition to the aforementioned situation, another principal criticism of these laws is that many felonies involve only a minimal threat to society. In some states, possession of a small amount of crack cocaine or even marijuana may be treated as a felony, so three such convictions would carry permanent imprisonment. There are many other felonies which call into question the advisability of strict three-strikes laws, such as some minor white-collar crimes which only marginally qualify as felonies. Often a burglary, a crime which could result in the theft of something having little or no value, is perceived as being unjustly included as one of the three "strikes."
Some have also argued that these laws can provide criminals with a perverse incentive to commit murder. If a certain person already has two felony convictions, then a conviction for any third felony (such as grand theft) may carry a penalty comparable to that for a murder conviction. If by killing a witness to a crime, a criminal may reduce his or her chances of being apprehended, then under a three-strikes law he or she has no incentive not to commit the murder.
A two-time felon who is one serious crime away from becoming a target of these laws is often referred to as a "two-time loser."
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