What is the Three Strikes Law?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Opponents of three strikes laws site cases of people being given life in prison for stealing slices of pizza.
Opponents of three strikes laws site cases of people being given life in prison for stealing slices of pizza.

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.

Three serious offenses typically adds up to a lengthy prison sentence.
Three serious offenses typically adds up to a lengthy prison sentence.

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.”

The inflexibility of three strikes laws can be problematic for judges and other legal professionals.
The inflexibility of three strikes laws can be problematic for judges and other legal professionals.

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.

The three strikes law is a reference to striking out in baseball.
The three strikes law is a reference to striking out in baseball.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Back in 2006, Canada pondered passing a similar bill. Well what has happened to this bill as of this year? An election is coming up once again. I'd like this to be a hot topic of debate once more. Maybe passed this time.

Too many criminals know the legal system inside and out to work it to their advantage. A change is needed to throw them off. And keep them in jails long-term. What happened to safety for the public?


I personally would like to see our court systems and lawmakers create a situation where repeat offenders could be put away for life simply based on two consecutive counts of conviction in a violent crime. This more specific classification would only apply to individuals that have committed the exact same type of violent crime and have demonstrated properly that they have no intention of changing the way that they live their life and operate day to day.

While this might seem very harsh, I think that it is something we can do to prevent violent crime here in America. If it is as simple as a two conviction system, we will thwart the pain and suffering of many victims in our great nation and create a society that people can feel much safer to live in.


I agree with FrogFriend in their analysis of how the three strikes law is simply to vague to be applied across the board on any sort of felony crime.

Three strikes laws pros and cons are easily balanced through the proper administration of justice by our courts and as long as we have proper judges, I do think that it would be possible to have an effective enforcement of it. Unfortunately I think that before we can really enforce it and believe in the purpose that it has, we must refine the way that we define felonies and determine if ever classification we have for the designator, properly deserves it. I just want justice to be served and have our system protect us in anyway possible without overstepping the bounds of what it should be doing. This might sound like an impossible task but I do think that it is a possibility for our society to accomplish.


I think that the three strikes law is exactly the kind of enforcement for repeat criminals that we need. It is this repeated offenses that truly damage society and not the once in a life time style criminal.

When we identify a repeat offender making their way through our social justice system, we must take care in dealing with their case. The problem is that we as a society are taking on the responsibility if that criminal commits the crime again and must repay or compensate any victim that they might inflict harm against. For this reason, we must imprison repeat offenders to make the chance that they can harm somebody again, less likely.


While the three strikes law has been shown to put away repeat criminals, there is still an issue with the way that it is enforced. The problem lays in the fact that the classification of felonies or crimes that have been deemed to be a felony are sometimes not the kind of crimes that mean someone should spend their life in jail for committing them over and over again.

Now you may ask, what repeat criminal could ever be justifiably released back into the public when it is very well understood that the person will commit the crime once again.

Drug offenders are a good example of this group of people that often get locked up for life because of three felony convictions for drug possession. The problem with the system working in this manner is that it means the people will never receive what they need, help to get over the drug addiction itself. Instead they are sent into nasty federal prisons where the drug use continues along with the spread of knowledge among criminals about their evil ways.

If we treat this kind of offense to society as a medical problem and not a criminal problem, I think we could much more effectively reduce drug use as well as curb the high costs of imprisoning a large drug using population. We need to think about these policies as they have a significant impact on our social budget and must be addressed properly.

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