The three strikes law has provoked considerable controversies since its enactment in several states in the United States. According to the law, courts obtain the mandate to pass the sentences of higher severity on offenders who have already faced two criminal convictions. The goal of the law was to reduce the likelihood of more crimes happening in the affected regions through the incapacitation of those more likely to commit the crimes.
Today, more than 20 states in the U.S. uphold the laws similar to the three strikes. Despite the fact that most states consider only felonies, California, for instance, takes into account misdemeanors as well, thus arousing major controversies since most citizens feel that it is a significant impediment to justice (Kovandzic, Sloan, & Vieraitis, 2004). Therefore, it is necessary to examine the three strikes law by exploring its history, fundamental features, and implications for the states that have fully integrated it into their judicial systems.
Background and Fundamental Issues
Similar laws have existed since the justice systems began emerging in the United States. However, mandatory prison sentences because of previous convictions have not been practiced for long. New York had a similar law known as Persistent Felony Offender law though it was deemed unconstitutional in 2010 only to emerge later. Nonetheless, the judges held considerable discretionary powers in such cases as not all were considered compulsory.
In 1974, Texas acted the same way and enacted a statute on habitual offenses, which imposed on the third-time offenders severer punishments. The sentence term according to this law was of 2 to 20 years (Stolzenberg & DAlessio, 1997). Therefore, the law increased the imprisonment terms for individuals who were convicted a third time.
In the 1990s, the law became more common as most states were now ready to adopt it. The first one, the Washington Three Strikes Initiative or Initiative 593, was passed in 1993. The following year, the infamous Proposition 184 was welcomed in California. The proposition is considered the severest among the similar laws of all states and imposes a life sentence on a three-time convict for serious felonies. Section 1192.7 of the states penal code lists the crimes considered as violent or severe under this law.
Despite the widespread adoption of the three strikes law in many other regions, none dared to implement a law as harsh as Proposition 184. In the following decade, over 20 states implemented similar statues which qualified as the three strikes law (Stolzenberg & DAlessio, 1997). The fundamental feature of the sentences is that the minimum number of years was 20, after which a convict would become eligible for parole.
The parole would not necessarily mean that the felon could receive favorable judgment: they could only have their sentences reconsidered based on the available evidence. Thus, habitual criminals faced more challenges in the states that had instituted the laws.
Nevertheless, the outcomes of the adoption of the three strikes law failed to match public expectation, which initially had triggered their effortless embracement. Constant reviews and studies on the effectiveness and affordability of the three strikes law have been carried out with most of them yielding inconclusive outcomes because of the discordant results in various states.
Most studies reveal that there was no significant reduction in crimes despite the harshness of the law. The only evident result, particularly in California, was the overcrowding of the correctional facilities. The reason for it was the following: the law was applied even to the third-time offenders who had been arrested for having committed non-violent and misdemeanor offenses. As a result of these revelations, several strategies were implemented to alleviate the adversity of the three strikes law.
In 2000, a referendum was conducted in a bid to reduce the sentence for offenders charged with drug possession. The voters approved the proposition, which meant that inmates could receive drug treatment instead of serving long jail terms. The proposal was supposed to reduce overcrowding in Californias correctional centers, thus reducing the amount of public funds spent on inmates. Treatment for drug addiction would be a friendlier approach compared to having offenders serve time in prison for non-violent crimes.
In 2003, one of the legal cases drew the attention of many. A man who had been charged before with two counts of petty theft was arrested a third time, which would necessitate the enforcement of the three strikes law. The Supreme Court openly supported this position. On the same day, a man received a life sentence for having been previously convicted twice. As a result of many complaints from concerned parties, the California State Senate released a bill in 2006 seeking to amend the original three strikes law (Brown & Jolivette, 2005).
According to the Senate, the law would be reformed so that the third offense would have to be violent to be considered as the third strike. However, the governor of the state rejected the bill as he was not interested in changing the fundamental principle of the law.
Analysis of the Law
The early proponents of the three strikes held that the law needed to be passed to address the issue of dangerous, violent, and serial criminals. Criminal justice systems around the world consider serial offenders the most difficult to handle. Most of them do not demonstrate any significant modifications in their behaviors despite serving long prison terms. Furthermore, some have been discovered to enjoy their time in jail to the extent of committing offenses immediately after being released in order to be brought back in jail.
As a result, correctional authorities, the public, and policymakers felt that it would be necessary to have a law that would ensure that such offenders are away from the public for longer periods of time or even for the rest of their lives. Therefore, after long examinations of the most appropriate legislations, the three strikes law was ultimately chosen since it appeared to focus on these serious criminals rather than the first-time offenders.
The proponents of the law believed that the crime rate would decrease if these perpetrators faced longer sentences (Brown & Jolivette, 2005). They support their claim with the evidence of it significantly reducing the rates of crime in most parts of the nation. The proponents cannot see any reason to not uphold the three strikes law in its strictest sense. One of the primary causes of this position is that holding the serial felons longer in the correctional facilities would prevent them from committing crimes during their sentence period.
Secondly, the threat that comes alongside these sentence enhancements would significantly discourage most felons from engaging in new criminal activities (Brown & Jolivette, 2005). Therefore, everyone had sufficient reasons to believe that the fight against crime in the United States was heading in a particular direction.
The three strikes law made significant changes in the justice system in all states that adopted it with the outstanding feature being the enhancement of sentences for those felons who were repeat offenders. Fundamentally, the law held that a previously convicted offender would have their sentences enhanced upon conviction for a new felony. Another change that the law brought was the establishment of law on the second strike offense. According to Brown and Jolivette, a previous one-time convict would receive a sentence twice the one that would have otherwise applied for the newly committed crime (2005).
Such criminals are called second strikers. The third strike offenders receive severe sentences. Brown and Jolivette assert that any new conviction for a person who has been convicted twice of at least two serious felonies would lead to a life sentence. According to Brown and Jolivette, the minimum term for such convicts would be 25 years, after which they would become eligible for parole (2005). In general, persons convicted under this law would face a basic mandatory jail term for these years.
The law also has other provisions in situations where offenders are brought in under related but substantially different circumstances. One of these cases is when someone receives consecutive sentencing as a result of multiple offenses. If the three-time strikers face multiples convictions for their crimes, they are entitled to consecutive sentencing whereby each term adds to the previous rather than receiving concurrent sentences. In the case of the third strike offenders, for example, a felon receives a sentence equal to the minimum term of 25 years multiplied by the number of third strike offenses.
For instance, if they have four third strike offenses, they would be in jail for minimum 100 years (Kovandzic, Sloan, & Vieraitis, 2004). Another feature is the unlimited aggregate term which holds that the number of felonies that add to the consecutive count is unlimited. Evidently, it would be difficult for a person who committed a series of third strike crimes to leave the correctional facilities.
The three strike law also maintains that the time that has elapsed since the last conviction is insignificant. However long the time between the felonies is, it cannot affect the circumstances of the current conviction; thus, any crime committed throughout an individual's life counts as a prior strike. The law also proscribes diversion, suspension, and probation. There is no provision for the extension of probation for any new felony committed even if the perpetrators seem to have a strong argument.
Moreover, the imposition of a prior offense sentence may not be suspended under any circumstances. State prison is the only option, and nobody is eligible to change it. Additionally, the furtherance of justice maintains that the prosecution may dismiss prior felonies and have them ignored in the current conviction. Finally, the prison term for the three strikers can be reduced no more than by a fifth as a result of good time credits.
In the following years after the enactment of the three strikes law, there was a significant increase in the sentence terms of most repeat offenders. The third-time non-violent offenders whose first two offenses were serious crimes would be affected the most. For instance, if an individual previously convicted of burglary and robbery is found engaging in a syndicate in which they receive money from the theft, they would face a life sentence despite the third offense being considered nonviolent.
Before the enactment of the law, such felon would face a sentence of less than five years. The case would become questionable if the same convict committed a serious or violent felony instead of receiving money from illegal activities. The same life imprisonment would have ensued. Therefore, a person who committed a non-violent felony would receive the harshest sentence compared to a person whose sentence would have otherwise been similar if the three strikes law was not adopted.
Several legal challenges emerged immediately after the implementation of the three strikes law in California in 1994. Fundamentally, most concerned groups were questioning how constitutional the law was, particularly for a third time offender who committed a non-violent felony. Thus, most felt that the law had gone against the earlier constitutional amendment which was meant to protect citizens against cruel punishments of the justice systems. Several groups believed that the law failed to concur with the already established policies regarding the proportionality of sentences to crimes. Brown and Jolivette state that the time should be appropriate to the committed crime (2005).
For example, a keen analysis reveals that a person who commits a misdemeanor for the first time might receive a harsher sentence than a first-time offender involved in a serious or violent crime. Furthermore, the third-time offender would be relatively ineligible for several privileges, such as parole, probation, and good time credits. Judicial discretion is also limited in the three strikes law compared to the first-time offenses, and the issue of separation of powers in the justice systems provoked more questions regarding the new law.
Consequently, some rulings by the courts have limited the applications of the law while others have disregarded most of its provisions. Nonetheless, there still are various contradictions regarding the embracement of the law, and the balance of justice has also been questioned (Kovandzic, Sloan, & Vieraitis, 2004).
On the whole, courts have endeavored to resolve the issues based on their best understanding of the law in conjunction with the constitutional provisions and other judicial policies. One of the adopted resolutions is the consideration of juvenile convictions as strikes. In addition, misdemeanors can elevate the sentence enhancements in case the offenders subsequently commit other felonies.
Since the three strikes law cannot be sufficiently upheld based on equity, the courts are left to discretion to decide on future adjustments. Therefore, two different courts can approach similar cases of three strikes differently even if the first two offenses were of similar nature. The implementation of the law has had major flaws, particularly because of the extension of periods for non-violent offenses, for which the states have the greatest number of offenders. Thus, the third time non-violent offenders have stayed in the correctional facilities longer than necessary, thus costing the government more money.
Furthermore, the discretion granted to judges regarding the dismissal of the strikes which have been committed before the third one has raised many concerns across the states because it has triggered discordance in terms of fairness in the implementation of justice. It increased the number of appeals after a ruling because most offenders compared their cases to those of others who probably received fairer treatments elsewhere notwithstanding the similarity of their cases (Kovandzic, Sloan, & Vieraitis, 2004).
Additionally, a third-time convict can no longer be sure of what to expect because of the uncertainties associated with the law. In general, the law has succeeded and failed in different regions in the nation, and its implementation is still undergoing significant changes within the justice system.
The three strikes laws have had many implications for the citizens, policy makers, and the justice systems in the United States since their inception. They have both benefits and drawbacks, thus triggering conflicting views regarding their constitutionality, affordability, and effectiveness. Critics feel that instead of reducing crime in the states, the law has only increased the expenses of the government, hence the raise of taxes that the citizens pay.
On the other hand, the proponents of the law believe that the three strikes law has significantly reduced the levels of crime. They argue that keeping the offenders in the prisons longer reduces their likelihood of committing new crimes. The supporters also state that the severer sentences associated with the strikes law discourage the would-be-third-time offenders from becoming involved in criminal activities. On the whole, the implications of the three strikes laws are still debatable.