In the early 1990s, states began passing “three strikes and you’re out” laws. These tough-on-crime measures significantly increased sentences for repeat, violent offenders. As the name implies, three “strikes”—three convictions for certain kinds of offenses—would trigger these tough sentences, including life in prison.
Between 1993 and 1995, 24 states implemented three strikes laws. These laws responded to public frustration with the idea that states released repeat, violent offenders back on the streets too quickly.
Washington and California were the first states to enact three strikes laws. As other states followed, the label of “three strikes” stuck. Despite having the same name, however, states’ laws varied then and continue to differ now.
Regardless of three strikes laws, people tend to get stiffer sentences when they have some kind of criminal history. For example, someone who has already been convicted of driving under the influence (DUI) will likely get harsher punishment if convicted of DUI again. Three strikes laws, though, ensure that certain kinds of offenders receive substantially more severe penalties for reoffending.
Three strikes laws generally require judges to sentence a person convicted of three or more felonies to a significantly longer sentence than would normally apply to each felony separately. Laws and courts sometimes refer to these defendants as “career criminals” or “habitual offenders.”
Three strikes laws generally deal with serious and violent offenses. Common crimes considered “strikes” include rape, murder, arson, and robbery. But the lists of “strikes” vary by state—some include nonviolent offenses like treason, drug trafficking, felony theft, and bribery.
The number of strikes that trigger an “out” also differs from state to state. In some states, two strikes can result in a sentence of life in prison without parole. In others, it takes three or even four strikes to get a long repeat-offender sentence. (Some states impose enhanced penalties after having just one strike on your record—in addition to the maximum sentence imposed after three strikes.)
No consistent definition for “out” exists among states either. Longer sentences stemming from three strikes laws can range from 10, 15, or 25 years to life in prison. In some states, a life sentence allows for the possibility of parole after the defendant serves a certain number of years, while in others parole is out of the question.
Three Strikes in Action
Suppose Jason committed two serious, violent felonies 20 years ago. He served his time in prison. After being released, he stole a car and was charged with a felony. Under a three strikes law in his state, Jason could be sentenced to 25 years for stealing the car because it was his third strike. In a state without a three strikes law, his sentence might be much shorter, something like two to three years in prison.
Many of the original three strikes laws made their longer sentence (like life in prison) mandatory, meaning that the judge had no choice but to impose that punishment. The laws didn’t allow judges to adjust a sentence based on the facts of a particular case.
In the years since the initial three strikes laws, many critics opposed these mandatory penalties and called for changes. Stories of life sentences imposed for nonviolent crimes—such as felony theft—prompted many states to pass reforms of original three strikes laws.
In California, the original law did not require the third strike to be on the list of serious or violent crimes that counted as strikes. Rather, any felony conviction counted as the third strike—even when the felony was elevated from a misdemeanor only because of the offender’s prior criminal record. (Lockyer v. Andrade, 123 S.Ct. 1166 (2003).) The law became controversial after the media brought attention to individuals getting life sentences for crimes that would normally only get a few months in jail. California voters have since approved changes to the law multiple times.
Many states have eliminated the mandatory imposition of the longer three-strikes-triggered sentences, instead allowing judges more flexibility to decide the sentence that fits the crime and the particular defendant. Additionally, common state reforms include:
Given the complexity of three strikes laws and the possibility of lengthy sentences, it’s critical to consult a criminal defense attorney if you face felony charges. In fact, it’s important to talk to a lawyer if you’ve been charged with any kind of crime, to understand how the law could impact you and begin to navigate the justice system.