What is a Habitual Offender?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 16 January 2020
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A habitual offender is a person who repeatedly engages in criminal activity despite having been convicted and sentenced on prior occasions. Habitual offenders repeat the same crimes or related crimes, and are generally deemed beyond rehabilitation because they demonstrate no interest in ceasing their activities. Once someone is considered a habitual offender, special actions may be taken by the government in the interests of protecting society.

One very common example of a habitual offender is someone who racks up a large number of driving offenses in a short period of time. Someone may be repeatedly ticketed for speeding, for example, or receive several drunk driving convictions in a row. These habitual offenders may have their licenses to drive revoked under the argument that they clearly pose a risk to public safety and the best way to prevent further incidents is to take away driving privileges.

Other types of habitual offenders might repeatedly commit robberies, vandalism, or other activities. Regional laws usually have a firm definition of a habitual offender, such as someone who commits three major or 10 minor offenses within a five year period. People who have committed multiple offenses may be warned in court that they are in danger of becoming habitual offenders and this can be used as evidence in future cases that someone was aware of the potential consequences of criminal activity and chose to engage in it regardless.


In some regions, there are so-called “three strikes laws” for habitual offenders who commit felonies. Under these laws, if someone commits and is convicted of three felonies, there are harsh sentencing guidelines which are designed to place the offender behind bars. These laws are designed to reduce the risks posed to society by habitual offenders by removing them from the street so that they cannot continue to commit crimes. These laws have been criticized for increasing prison populations and there is also a debate about how effective they are at the prevention of crime.

Once someone is classified as a habitual offender, it may be necessary to file an appeal to have the label removed. People who have been classified in error can challenge the standing of the classification, while people who really are habitual offenders may present the court with evidence of rehabilitation as an argument that they should not longer be considered risks to society. A lawyer can assist with such appeals and help people prepare an effective case.


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