The Three Strikes Law is a name for a widely adopted zero-tolerance law applied against repeat offenders. At least 24 states enacted some version of this law in hopes of reducing violent crime that spiked in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Washington and California were the first to apply the laws, which include mandatory life sentences for those convicted of certain crimes three times.
The adoption of three-strikes laws coincided with then-President Bill Clinton’s federal law to tighten penalties for habitual offenders. His law, called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, passed in 1994, greatly expanded prison capacity, added 100,000 new police officers, established sex offender registries and included a ban on civilian ownership of semi-automatic weapons. The law also added 60 new offenses to the list of capital crimes that trigger the death penalty.
Some suspect that the law and associated law enforcement funding was a quid pro quo for the votes of the National Association of Police Officers, which endorsed Clinton for President in 1992.
How Three Strikes Laws Work
Three strikes laws were meant to reduce violent crime by sending habitual offenders to prison, often for mandatory life sentences. The law was designed to deter violent crime through the threat of severe punishment. Some state laws stipulated that only felony convictions counted, and some states required the offenses to be violent, but other states were not specific. Convictions crossed state lines: strikes counted regardless of where the crime was committed.
There are many anecdotal stories that vast numbers of offenders were sentenced to life in prison for nonviolent offenses like drug possession due to this law. Very few appeals have made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that only grossly disproportionate punishments would be overturned. The Supreme Court deferred to state courts and legislatures on three strikes appeals.
Three Strikes Law Facts:
- New Jersey's three strikes law included crimes committed as a juvenile. One man appealed his life sentence because one of the crimes that counted against him was committed as a juvenile. The state supreme court decided that the prohibition against life sentences for juvenile crimes does not apply.
- California’s three-strikes law was one of the toughest as it was established during a period of backlash against high-profile violent crimes committed there. In the first three years, the state sentenced 26,000 people under the law while Washington sentenced only 85.
- Florida decided by 1997 that the three-strikes approach was insufficient, so a new law was passed, called the Prison Releasee Reoffender Act. It directed prosecutors to sentence anyone who committed a felony within three years of release for a prior felony to be sentenced to life in prison, with few exceptions. The people who committed a crime are listed in the arrest record.
Which States Have Three Strikes Laws?
Between the earliest establishment of the modern Three Strikes law in Washington in 1993 and 2012, when Massachusetts adopted similar legislation, about half the states in the U.S. had Three Strikes laws on the books. These states include:
- New York, which had habitual offender laws since 1797.
- Texas, established a similar law in 1952 that was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1980, sending a person to prison for life for the equivalent of $230 due to previous felony convictions.
- Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, all have Two Strikes laws for repeat violent offenders.
- North Carolina, Alabama, Maryland, and Delaware, all had pre-existing three-strikes laws.
- Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, New Mexico, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, Wisconsin, California, Vermont, Arkansas, Montana, Nevada, Florida, New Jersey, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Utah, all established in 1994-95.
Massachusetts enacted its law as other states were starting to reconsider the efficacy of Three Strikes. In that state, about 600 people previously convicted of nonviolent drug offenses were resentenced or released when the law was signed.
Many states have amended their laws, which originally allowed judges very little discretion in sentencing. Maryland extended it to require a fourth significant felony before the automatic life imprisonment sentence kicked in, and Delaware changed its law to include only specific felonies.
California’s law is considered one of the most severe, with many nonviolent felonies making a person eligible for life imprisonment as their third strike (a nonviolent theft of an item valued over a certain amount might qualify). An example was a habitual burglar who was sentenced to life in prison for stealing videos from a K-Mart store, and whose sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court. Crimes like burglary, robbery, arson, and drug possession qualify an individual for significant incarceration when the three strikes law is triggered.
In 2004, California’s law was challenged but voters reaffirmed their support for it. By 2012 opinions had changed significantly, particularly in light of the amount of a savings of $100 million over what the state was spending to keep people in prison. Proposition 36 was passed in 2012 reforming the state’s Three Strikes law, requiring the third strike offense to be violent, and allowing those previously sentenced to seek review of their penalties.
Georgia enacted a tough "three-strikes" policy called the “seven deadly sins” law that started with a mandatory 10-year sentence for the first violent felony, and life imprisonment without parole for the second.
Within the first five years, a study showed that these laws resulted in young black men being disproportionately convicted for crimes and sentenced to three strikes violations. In subsequent years research revealed that poor people who relied on public defenders often had inadequate legal support during trials. Other media investigations have shown convictions overturned by evidence of shoddy police work or unreliable witnesses.
State vs. Federal Three Strikes Laws
The federal government enacted three strikes provisions at the same time as most of the states (the mid-1990s). This covers any crime that falls within federal jurisdiction, which can be geographical (national parks, military installations, federal housing projects, Native American reservations, etc.) or that involves the FBI or interstate activity like kidnapping, drug trafficking, or illegal gun sales. Currently, issues like mass shootings (when four or more people are affected/wounded) are frequently considered federal crimes due to the category of victims selected: if the shooter seeks to kill a particular race or class of person it may trigger federal terrorism or hate crime provisions.
A federal prosecutor decides if a case gets charged under federal law. This also requires a grand jury to hear the evidence and return a positive finding.
In the first use of the federal three-strikes law, a career criminal named Tommy Lee Farmer, of Iowa was charged with interfering with interstate commerce because he was involved in a botched robbery of a grocery store (because the store had locations in multiple states it was elevated to federal court). In the past Farmer had served shortened sentences for a series of violent crimes like beating a man (who died), hitting a girlfriend, and participating in the murder of a fellow prison inmate. His federal conviction was a significant political act, as President Bill Clinton Interrupted a vacation to make a press statement about it.
Studies showed that three-strikes laws did not significantly deter crime. In the decade after the passage of these state laws, prison populations surged but crime fell. The reduction in crime is attributed to higher employment and other social programs rather than punitive measures.
Laws are used as political fodder, to show voters that elected officials are not “soft on crime". The growth of the private prison industry is directly related to the establishment of three-strikes laws. Donations made by the private prison industry to politicians draw a direct relationship to maintaining high levels of incarceration. Almost 2 million people are held in jails and prisons in the United States.