Last Updated 14 Nov 2022

The Pros and Cons of the Three Strikes Law in the United States

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The Three Strikes Law was originally enacted in 1994, it stated that if a defendant was convicted on any two felonies and then convicted of a third, the law mandates a state prison term of a mandatory sentence of twenty-five years to life (Pillsbury, 2002). The controversy against this law is enormous because it does not specify if the felony being committed has to be violent or non-violent in order for the convicted to serve life in prison. Twenty-four states have adopted the Three Strikes Law, but California is still the toughest state when it comes to conviction rates with using this law. The argument against the Three Strikes Law has been criticized for casting out too wide of a net, meaning that this law brings in anyone that commits a third felony (Chiesa, 2010). Even though, the first two felonies that a person is convicted of must be serious felonies to be sentenced by this law, the California law states that the third felony can be any type of felony. Since so many people have taken victim to this law, the numbers of inmates have increased and the cost for prisons is around $47,102 to house an inmate per year (Pillsbury, 2002). The state has decided to start cutting cost of the K-12 education to allow the correct funding for the prison budget to accommodate the large number of inmates.

Three main pros of the Three Strikes Law before the 2012 revision of the law included; discouraging habitual offenders from committing against because the sentencing of twenty-five years to life was put on the table if they were to be arrested again. Crime rates were reduced because of how often criminals were removed from the street, this created a lower crime rate in the community since the presence of police was high in a certain area. Finally, citizens are able to enjoy the outdoors or sit on their porch without worrying about crime happening in their neighborhood or community (Sutton, 2013). The pros about the Three Strikes Law range from the convicted receiving a harsh punishment for committing crimes more than twice and that it is an effective crime control strategy (Chiesa, 2010). In 2012, there was a revision of the law that stated, "There will no longer be a mandatory twenty-five years to life sentence for "strikers" whose third strike is not serious or violent (Callanan, 2013). This reform would in fact reduce the number of convictions of non-violent offenders to only violent offenders. With this law in place, community members will have a lower sense of fear of crime in the community because the violent and non-violent repeat offenders before 2012 would have been sentenced to twenty five years to life on their third charge, violent or not. There are three potential effects of the Three Strikes Law that could impact the criminal court process.

The first concern is the impact of the Three Strikes Law is the overall levels of punitiveness, meaning that the sentencing under this law would be longer and more frequent, they also would be receiving harsher punishments than others convicted of the same crime (Sutton, 2013). The second issue is the impact of the law on racial-ethnic sentencing disparities. This concern deals with the problem of eliminating racial bias when arresting and sentencing, since African Americans are overrepresented in the prison population who were convicted based on the Three Strikes Law (Sutton, 2013). Since data states that African Americans get arrested for more petty non-violent crimes, before 2012 if it was their third conviction, they would have been sentenced to twenty-five to life based on the Three Strikes Law. The third issue is the predictability of sentencing; this serves as problem to the prosecutor and defendant because the judge must stick to the strict sentencing formula that is brought on by the Three strikes Law (Sutton, 2013). Depending on the jurisdiction and what type of crimes are brought into a certain court room, the judge could mostly see drug offenses or more of property crimes, but no matter what type, as long as it is violent or non-violent before 2012 the defendant could be sentenced to twenty-five to life. This law receives a lot of backlash because of how strict it was before the reform was enacted.

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The biggest con that the Three Strikes Law has is how one in four inmates in California prisons are serving time for their third strike conviction sentence, the prisons in California are already overcrowded and this law increased the inmate population, which increased the prison capacity to almost double the limit (Callanan, 2013). While many states passed habitual offender laws during the 1990's, California passed the Three Strikes Law, which is much more punitive since it doubles the sentence for any felony conviction when the offender has two prior serious convictions, leaving the convicted to serve twenty-five to life (Ehlers, 2004). There are questions concerning the actual impact of this law on the crime in California. During Ehlers research on the Three Strikes Law he found that there are six main findings. That the Three Strikes Law has impacted the size and scope of the California prison system, the law has disproportionately effected people convicted on non-violent crimes, it has affected more African Americans and Latinos than any other racial group, the law has not been associated with large drops in crime rates, it has had a significant financial impact on California, and that the law has had implications for the children of California's prisoners (Ehlers, 2004). The three main negative effects that come from the Three Strikes Law include; the prison budget goes up because of the rising numbers of inmates.

Since there are so many inmates, the state has to pay for them somehow, so they decrease the size of the police departments in the surrounding areas, leaving less law enforcement. The main one is that people are serving life sentences for shoplifting and other petty offenses (Sutton, 2013). Since the law was first enacted in 1994, more than 50,000 felons have received enhanced prison sentences because of the Three Strikes Law (Zimring, 2001). This law also impacts the court system; the Los Angeles Superior Court reported that the Three Strikes Law resulted in more and longer trials, pretrial hearings, and administrative workload (Zimring, 2001). With this law in place, the need for judges, jurors, and prosecutors are high in demand because of the high amount of cases that come in dealing with third strike offenders. The impact of the Three Strikes Law put California in a financial problem, from the cost of keeping the high number of prisoners in prison because of their third conviction, serious or not. Studies show that as a means of deterrence and incapacitation the Three Strikes Law had no significant effect on deterrence of crime in California (Chiesa, 2010). Even though the ineffectiveness of the Three Strikes Law may be due to the amount of people getting sentenced by this law, there is no study for that question yet. The Three Strikes Law is said to be in violation with the 8th amendment. The 8th amendment states that it, “Prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines, or cruel and unusual punishment”. Zimring argues that the Three Strikes Law violates the 8th amendment with over sentencing people convicted of a non-serious offense, which is violating the 8th amendment by cruel and unusual punishment (Zimring, 2001). The amendment states that if a law violates it, then the law should be overturned.

A new sentencing guideline that was approved in October 2011, did not eliminate the Three Strikes Law, however, it gave convicted felons the opportunity to participate in alternative rehabilitative services while serving their time (Sutton, 2013). Since so many people are convicted on the Three Strikes Law with a non-serious crime, this gives them an opportunity to prove to the court that they want to do something with their life instead of sit in prison and keep going down the wrong path in life (Sutton, 2013). Also in November 2012, the approval of Proposition 36 impacted approximately three-thousand convicted felons who were serving life terms for their third conviction of a non-violent or non-serious crime, became eligible to petition the court for a new, reduced sentence (Sutton, 2013). With this Proposition in place, it gives inmates who did not deserve to serve life in prison the chance to change their life and get back into the real world and continue their life. Even though there is a lot of pubic outrage in expression towards this law, it has cleaned up the communities that seem to have a high rate of problems. After the revision of the law and the approval of Proposition 36, the law has been revised to accommodate the right types of criminals, the violent ones, not the person who has two prior charges and then they steal food and receive twenty-five to life for a petty charge. The Three Strikes Law protects the public from repeat violent offenders and gives second chances for people who may be struggling with getting their life straight.

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