In 1995, Leandro Andrade, who had been convicted previously for petty thefts and burglary, stole five videotapes from a K-Mart store in Ontario, California. He later stole some more videotapes from another K-Mart store. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison due to the three-strikes law in the state.
There is hardly any law in the US that has generated as much fury and debate as the three-strikes law. Passed by 24 American States and the Congress, the three-strikes law is a legislation that mandates increasingly tougher prison terms for repeat or habitual offenses. The legislation was passed under the slogan of "Three-Strikes-and-You're-Out."
Habitual offenders should have had prior convictions of serious, violent crimes. The rationale for imposing these laws is to keep habitual offenders, also known as recidivists, behind bars. The law was sought to deter criminals from committing serious felonies. To assess the impact that it had on crime and the criminal justice system, we first need to understand the facts of the three-strikes law.Three-strikes Law Facts
The three-strikes law increases the prison sentences of repeat offenders who have been convicted of two or more violent crimes or serious felonies.
The rallying cry for such sentencing laws was fueled after the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by Richard Allen Davis, a career criminal who had an extensive record of prior crimes.
In November 1993, Washington voters passed Initiative 593 "Three Strikes You're Out" by a three-to-one margin.
In 1994, California voters passed Proposition 184 by an overwhelming majority, with 72% in favor of "Three Strikes and You're Out." Along with California, 11 other states passed similar laws in 1994.
Serious felonies, as defined by the Penal Code sections 667.5(c) and 1192.7(c), range from burglary and robbery to kidnapping, murder, and sex offenses, like rape. In California, crimes involving explosive devices, drug possession, or arson also come in the purview of serious felonies.
Although many other states have passed a three-strikes law for convicting habitual offenders with violent crimes, it is only in California that even minor crimes and lesser offenses are awarded a life sentence.
The controversial part about the law in California, and the one which has sparked off a lot of debate, is that the defendant's two prior convictions, also known as 'strike priors', should be serious crimes. However, the third crime, which can be any trivial felony, including shoplifting, can result in a minimum 25 years-to-life sentence for the defendant.
They also need to serve at least 20 years before they are eligible for parole.
A defendant with one strike prior, who commits a felony the second time is sentenced to twice the base term of the current felony.
The court can take a decision to strike or dismiss a 'strike' prior. This is done when the sentencing court finds that a defendant with two or three strike priors falls outside the 'spirit' of the three-strikes law. This is often done when the new offense is not very serious and the defendant has a nonviolent history.
Three-strikes Law Pros
In certain situations, juvenile adjudications are also considered as 'strikes'.
Three-strikes Law Cons
Despite the growing concern over the severity of the three-strikes law, there are many people who support it. Some of the arguments supporting the law include:
Clear Penalties for Crime
The criminal justice system should be able to hand out quick and definitive penalties for the crime committed. Due to the mandatory nature of these sentences, the three-strikes law ensures that offenders are punished.
Harsh Punishment for Repeat Offenders
When the power is left to the judges, it is observed that many times criminals, even the repeat offenders, get away with light sentences. This can be curbed by the mandatory sentences imposed by the three-strikes law, which will ensure that repeat offenders are adequately punished.
Removal of Repeat Offenders from Society
This is the reason that the legislation was passed in the first place. The primary goal of any criminal justice system is to protect law-abiding citizens. When repeat offenders of serious crimes, like murder and rape, and other dangerous citizens are out on the streets, how is an average person supposed to feel safe? The proponents of this system also feel that there is no chance for repeat offenders to rehabilitate and redeem themselves. They would keep committing crimes which could be dangerous to society.
Reduction of Felony Arrest Rates
It has been found that the three-strikes law acts as a deterrent of crime and has reduced felony arrest rates by approximately 17 to 20 percent in California.
Punishment May Not Befit the Crime
Whether the crime committed by a repeated offender is serious and violent, or minor and nonviolent, the punishment is the same. The law has to differentiate in the punishment it hands out to a dangerous criminal accused of killing five people, and a shoplifter who has picked up $150 worth of videotapes from department stores.
The Third Felony May Be Minor
It was found that many of the criminals sentenced to life in prison did not commit violent crimes, but minor ones, for their third strike. No civilized society should hand out such harsh sentences to citizens for petty crimes, regardless of past offenses. Some people consider it a violation of the 8th Amendment, which states that 'excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines, imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted'. Moreover, the imposition of maximum sentences because of past crimes can result in 'Double Jeopardy'. This occurs when a person is punished again for crimes for which he has already served time for.
Mandatory Sentences Reduces Judges' Discretionary Powers
Judges have discretionary powers which allow them to check the character of the criminal, the crime committed, and the circumstances of the crime. With mandatory sentencing laws like the three-strikes law, the powers of the judges are curtailed. This is a direct violation of the separation powers and independence of the judiciary, as outlined by the Constitution of America.
The Three-strikes Law is Unnecessary to Reduce Crime
Proponents of the law believe that keeping criminals off the streets reduce crime rates. This, however, may not be true. Although proponents of the law stated that crime in California reduced by 40%, it was found that from 1993 to 1999, serious felonies dropped by 41% in New York state, 31% in Washington, D.C., and 33% in Massachusetts without the three-strikes law.
Rapid Growth of Prison Population
The Corrections Yearbook noted that on August 1, 1994, the California Department of Corrections (CDC) was the most overcrowded prison system in the country. It was operating at 185.8% of its rated capacity. An estimated 25% of the entire prison population in the state are serving sentences under the three-strikes law. This costs the taxpayers and the government a lot of money, with millions being spent to house and pay health care costs of the inmates.
Thanks to all the debates about the efficacy of the law, and the realization that the campaign literature in support of three-strikes that claimed to put repeat robbers and murderers away for a long time may have been wrong, amendments to the law have been made. Proposition 36, which was approved on November 6, 2012, revises one of the key flaws of the three-strikes law. Under the revision, life sentences will be imposed only when the third-strike crime is 'serious or violent'. A number of convicted felons who were serving long sentences for nonviolent crime became eligible for petitions for reduced sentences.