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"Three Strikes" Sentencing Laws

Under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the "Three Strikes" statute (18 U.S.C. § 3559(c)) provides for mandatory life imprisonment if a convicted felon:

  • been convicted in federal court of a "serious violent felony" and
  • has two or more previous convictions in federal or state courts, at least one of which is a "serious violent felony." The other offense may be a serious drug offense.

The statute goes on to define a serious violent felony as including murder, manslaughter, sex offenses, kidnapping, robbery, and any offense punishable by 10 years or more which includes an element of the use of force or involves a significant risk of force.

The State of Washington was the first to enact a "Three Strikes" law in 1993. Since then, more than half of the states, in addition to the federal government, have enacted three strikes laws. The primary focus of these laws is the containment of recidivism (repeat offenses by a small number of criminals). California's law is considered the most far-reaching and most often used among the states.

Three strikes laws have been the subject of extensive debate over whether they are effective. Defendants sentenced to long prison terms under these laws have also sought to challenge these laws as unconstitutional. For instance, one defendant was found guilty of stealing $150 worth of video tapes from two California department stores. The defendant had prior convictions, and pursuant to California's three-strikes laws, the judge sentenced the defendant to 50 years in prison for the theft of the video tapes. The defendant challenged his conviction before the U.S. Supreme Court in Lockyer v. Andrade (2003), but the Court upheld the constitutionality of the law.

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