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.
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 or serious felony. In other states, a conviction for any felony can constitute the third strike. In some states, 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.
It's important to note, though, that some states have looked at reforming their three strikes laws. In California, for example, voters passed 2012's Proposition 36, which required that a third strike be a serious or violent felony. It also allowed for resentencing of offenders serving life sentences where the third strike was neither serious nor violent and a judge decides that resentencing wouldn't unreasonably risk public safety.
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.
State law may even allow for juvenile offenses to qualify as strikes, perhaps even if a judge has ordered the offense sealed.
Three strikes sentences remain controversial because they have sometimes resulted in low-level criminals receiving harsher punishment than convicted killers. 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 in 1997 for trying to steal food from the church. (A judge eventually set the sentence aside and ordered Taylor’s release.)
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.