Three Strikes Law in the United States

Three strikes law

Three Strikes and You're Out.
It may sound like a line from a baseball game, but these five words have affected the lives of thousands of people. Washington State was the first to enact the statute in 1993, followed by California shortly after that.
Spurred by the tragic murders of Polly Klass and Kimber Reynolds, California voters passed the "Three Strikes, and You're Out" law in 1994. The bill was a response to the heinous nature of the Klass and Reynolds crimes, meant put away repeat child molesters, rapists, and murderers.

What is The Three Strikes Law?

The "Three Strikes" law falls under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. According to the statute, convicted felons get mandatory life imprisonment if they:

  • Have been convicted of a serious violent felony in federal court.
  • Have two or more previous convictions in state or federal courts where at least one is a serious violent felony.
  • The other offense may be a severe drug violation.

This law has sentencing enhancements that impact a criminal defendant.

What Are Serious Violent Felonies?

Crime scene

To understand when the "Three Strikes" sentencing applies, defendants need to know how the law defines serious violent felonies.
A serious violent felony includes:

  • Murder.
  • Kidnapping.
  • Manslaughter.
  • Robbery.
  • Sex Offenses.
  • Any violation punishable ten years or more. This includes the use of force or a significant risk of force.

The "Three Strikes" law excludes the following felonies:

  • Unarmed Robbery.
  • Arson that did not pose a threat to human life.

In cases such as these, the burden of proof is on the defendant. He/she must show that crimes didn't involve threats to use a dangerous weapon, and there wasn't any threat of physical injury or death. Unless the defendant can prove otherwise, these offenses count as strikes.

The California Version: A Well-Meaning Yet Flawed Law?

The statute varies for each state. For instance, South Carolina has a two-strike law for the most severe offenses. However, California's law is one of the most far-reaching, which is why it's always the center for debate.
As a reaction to be tougher on crime, the intended outcome of the Three Strikes Law was to keep repeat offenders off the streets for good. The official ballot paraphernalia in California even promoted the statute as a sentencing scheme to keep sexual predators behind bars where they belong. However, the new law had significant repercussions for people arrested for non-violent crimes and put a burden on taxpayers.
The statute imposed life sentences for any crime, even minor ones if the defendant had two prior convictions on his/her record. If a person got arrested for vandalism and shoplifting, for instance, the "Three Strikes" rule could send him away for life. In the eyes of the law, a third strike is the third strike, no matter how petty the crime is.

The Result:

The act of stealing a slice of pizza or white socks worth $2.50 was enough to get people sent to prison for life if they had priors, even if these were minor. Today, the prison population is full of inmates serving lengthy sentences for non-violent crimes. They received the maximum penalty under the Three Strikes Law.

The Numbers Speak for Themselves

Crime statistics

In the state of California, African Americans make up only seven percent of the population, but 28 percent of the prison population. More than 45 percent of inmates sent to prison for life because of the third strike is black. These statistics are not an exaggeration. They're from the California Department of Corrections.
These numbers paint a disproportionate picture of how the law affects minority populations. The usual suspects for the Third Strike were most likely to be physically disabled, mentally ill, homeless, and black. The State Auditor of California estimates that the Three Strikes Law costs the state $19.2 billion to keep prisons working.
Proposition 36.
In 2012, hope came for California inmates who got absurd life sentences for petty crimes under the Three Strike Law. An overwhelming majority voted to enact Proposition 36, or the "Three Strikes Reform Act." The new bill addressed the harsh and unintended consequences brought about by the original Three Strikes law of 1994. The goal was to reduce the sentences of non-violent crime inmates currently serving life in prison.
Proposition 36 got rid of life sentences for non-serious and non-violent crimes. It also established procedures for inmates who got life imprisonment due to a minor third strike to petition the court for a reduced sentence. The courts must find that the prisoner no longer poses a threat to public safety before he can receive a reduced sentence. The Three Strikes Reform Act was the first voter initiative since the Civil War.
Paying Dividends.
In the first eight months of the enactment of Proposition 36, over 1,000 prisoners tasted freedom. Recidivism rates for these newly released prisoners stand at less than two percent, a number well below the national average. Proposition 36 also saved California taxpayers $10 to $13 million. If the new reform bill gets applied to all eligible inmates, Californians will save up to $1 billion in the next ten years.