A three strikes law is a law which mandates a lengthy prison sentence for habitual offenders. Several states including California and Washington have laws of this type on their books, and several nations also have such laws, while others are debating the passage of similar laws. The idea behind a three strikes law is that it gets repeat offenders off the streets, ensuring that they cannot continue to commit crimes. However, opponents of such laws have argued that the language is often less than ideal, and people have been sentenced to life in prison for things like stealing cookies and slices of pizza because these laws are so inflexible.
Typically, a three strikes law states that after the commitment of three felonies, someone must be sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after serving at least 25 years. The criminal history must also include a history of violent or serious crime. If, for example, someone is committed of rape, battery, and felony theft on separate charges, that person would be sent to prison under this type of law.
The term “three strikes law” is a reference to the sport of baseball, in which players are allowed three “strikes” or missed balls while at bat. In the rules of baseball, if a player fails to hit a ball when it passes within the strike zone at home plate, he or she is “out.” The same concept is invoked in the language of three strikes, or habitual offender laws, as in “three strikes and the offender is out of society.”
Supporters of habitual offender laws have pointed out that in regions with a three strikes law in effect, crime rates tend to go down after the passage of the law, suggesting that it acts as a deterrent, and that locking people up really does prevent crime. They also argue that such laws prevent crimes which would not be preventable under other sentencing rules. For example, a repeat felon with a history of violence against women could be paroled in a region without a three strikes law, potentially putting the felon in a position to attack more women, but in a region with a habitual offender law, the felon would be prevented from committing future crimes.
Opponents argue that the inflexibility of three strikes laws is very problematic. Normally, judges are allowed to use some discretion in sentencing, balancing the spirit of the law with the nature of the case, but in a region with a habitual offender law, the judge must send the defendant to prison. In California, voters addressed this issue in 2000 when they voted to allow judges to send repeat drug offenders to rehabilitation programs, rather than prison.
These laws also set up absurd circumstances on occasion, due to the language about a “history of violent or serious offenses.” Someone who commits a single violent or serious felony is at risk of going to prison under a three strikes law if he or she commits two more felonies, even if they are not violent or serious. This leads to high incarceration rates for people who possibly do not belong in prison.