The Three Strikes Law, a variation of which most U.S. states hold, is a law enacted in 1993 by Washington state which assigns a minimum sentence to anyone who has been convicted of three consecutive felonies. The Three Strikes Law is an effort made by the U.S. justice system to deter felonious crimes in the United States. It applies to felonies that are committed at three separate times on three different occasions.
Theoretically, the U.S. is assuming that anyone who commits more than two felonies is a chronic criminal and deserves to be behind bars for the safety of the public. Most of the legislators in favor of the Three Strikes Law believe that these criminals should be imprisoned for the rest of their lives. Although there is a fair bit of controversy surrounding the Three Strikes Law, it is still in effect.
Other states before the 1990’s have had versions of the Three Strikes Law which have no survived. For example, in the early 1900’s, several states passed Persistent Felony Offender laws which gave judges the discretionary power to assign lengthy sentences to those who continued to commit felonies. The Three Strikes Law is different, however, because it is much more widely used and applied to every case that encounters it.
Variations of the Three Strikes Law among U.S. states are quite wide, and depend upon a slew of different circumstances. Some states require that all three felonies be violent crimes, while others make no discrimination. Some allow a specified time period to pass between felony convictions; for example, if ten years have passed since the previous felony, the “three-count” starts all over again.
The problem is that felony crimes can vary widely in severity. Some are obvious threats to society, while others are comparatively petty crimes. For example, one man in California committed three felonies within ten years; the first was shoplifting a grocery cart from Wal-Mart, the second was for shoplifting a pair of sunglasses from a department store, and the third was for shoplifting a piece of pizza from a buffet. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison without parole for the pizza slice incident, as prescribed by the Three Strikes Law.
In states where any felony will count toward the third strike, critics of the Three Strikes Law have written papers about the fact that the law actually encourages violent crime. If you have two relatively petty felonies under your belt, your third one might as well be a doozy because you’ll get the same penalty anyway. If there isn’t a difference between shoplifting a piece of pizza (not a whole pie, mind you, but a slide of pepperoni), then what’s to stop you from committing a violent crime, such as armed robbery?
Regardless, the Supreme Court has ruled that the Three Strikes Law is not unconstitutional, and 32 U.S. states still have a variation of it.