Typical Three Strikes Laws

Third strike offenses involve severe sentences, even if the crimes are relatively minor.

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Three strikes laws, also called habitual offender laws, increase prison sentences for so-called “career criminals,” repeat offenders who’ve been convicted of serious or violent felonies. The case that led to the enactment of these laws was the 1993 California murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by Richard Allen Davis. Davis was a sex offender with a long history of criminal convictions, yet was free on parole when he killed Polly.

Same Structure, Different Details

The details of three strikes laws vary from one state to another. Most states’ laws specify the felonies that can constitute the first two strikes. In general, these felonies involve either violence or serious harm.

In states that have enacted three strikes laws, defendants with two enumerated serious or violent felonies who suffer a third conviction may be given a far lengthier sentence than the conviction would otherwise produce. In some states, a third strike must itself be a conviction for a violent felony. In other states, a conviction for any felony can constitute the third strike. In some states, like California, the third strike can be a misdemeanor that’s been elevated to a felony because of the defendant’s criminal record. Prosecutors generally have discretion over whether to seek a third strike sentence.

Kinds of Strikes

Convictions for serious or violent felonies in one state can constitute strikes for purposes of another state’s three strikes law. For example, if a defendant has committed two serious felonies in Maine, a state that does not have a three strikes law, and then commits a third serious felony in Washington, a state with a three strikes law, the Washington prosecutor has discretion to seek a third strike sentence.

Conviction for juvenile offenses can also qualify as strikes, sometimes even if a judge has ordered the offenses sealed.

Most Unfair Three Strikes Sentence Ever?

Three strikes sentences remain controversial because they can result in low-level criminals receiving harsher punishment than convicted murderers. Consider the example of Gregory Taylor, a homeless man convicted of attempting to break into a church’s food pantry to steal food. Taylor had previously been convicted of purse snatching and attempted theft of a wallet, two offenses that constituted strikes under the state’s three strikes law. Taylor was given a third strike sentence of 25 years to life for trying to steal food from the church. After Taylor had begun serving the sentence, a judge later set it aside and ordered Taylor’s release.

Consult a Lawyer

If you’re facing any kind of criminal charge, much less a potential third strike, you should consult an experienced criminal defense attorney. Only such an attorney can protect your legal rights and help you navigate the system.

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