'Three Strikes' Sentencing Laws

Created by FindLaw's team of attorney writers and editors.

Under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the "Three Strikes" statute provides for mandatory life imprisonment if a convicted felon: (1) has been convicted in federal court of a "serious violent felony"; and (2) 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 sentencing enhancements in this law can have a significant impact on a criminal defendant.

Read on to learn more about the law and how it works.

Defining Serious Violent Felonies

In order to better understand when three strikes sentencing applies, it's necessary to know how serious violent felonies are defined. The statute defines a serious violent felony to include the following:

  • 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 statute also specifically excludes certain felonies, such as unarmed robbery offenses or arsons which posed no threat to human life. However, in those cases, the burden is on the defendant to show that the crimes didn't involve threats to use a dangerous weapon and that no threat of death or bodily injury was involved. In other words, these can count as strikes unless a defendant proves otherwise.

State Laws and Three Strikes Sentencing Controversies

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 similar laws. The primary focus of these laws is the containment of recidivism. California's law is considered the most far-reaching and most often used among the states, although it was substantially amended in 2012. Amongst the states, there's a considerable amount of variety in how these laws are set up, either in how a "strike" is defined and how many strikes are required. South Carolina, for example, provides for two strikes for the "most serious offenses."

Three strikes laws have been the subject of extensive debate over whether they're 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 law, 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, finding that it didn't violate the "gross disproportionality principle."

Are You Subject to Three Strikes Sentencing? Get Professional Legal Help

If you have previous criminal convictions, you should know whether your state has a three strikes law and, if so, whether it could apply to you. After all, you don't want to end up with the same fate as the defendant above, spending decades in prison after committing a relatively minor crime. The best way to learn more about these types of laws and to protect your rights is to contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer in your state.

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