How does a society deal with a habitual offender who does not wish to embrace a rehabilitation process? In the United States, one solution has been to implement what is called a “three strikes law.”
A three strikes law requires a person who is convicted of a severe or violent felony, along with two additional qualifying felonies, to serve a mandatory life sentence in prison. More than half of the states in the US currently have some form of a habitual offender law. In California, even misdemeanor offenses have been qualifiers as a “strike” under these laws.
The benefit of a three strikes law is that it can remove potentially violent offenders from the general population. This keeps a community safer. The disadvantage is the cost of housing an offender for the rest of their natural life. In the United States, the average cost of incarceration can be as high as $75,000 per year.
Here are some additional pros and cons of a three strikes law to consider.
What Are the Pros of a Three Strikes Law?
1. It is a deterrent against crime.
Strong laws typically help to reduce the rate of crime that a community experience. Those who would be at-risk for offending have a value proposition that must be considered. Is the benefit of the crime worth the risk of what happens to them should they get caught? With the threat of a lifetime in prison on a third felony, the value proposition often swings toward not committing the crime.
2. They can reduce felony arrests.
In California, felony arrests have declined by up to 20% in some years with the implementation of three strikes laws. This is an additional point of emphasis to show how such a mandatory sentence can act as a deterrent to crime.
3. It keeps habitual offenders in prison.
45% of federal inmates are arrested again within 5 years of their release. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 77% of all inmates are arrested again within 5 years. A 2014 Swedish study, reported by Politifact, found that 1% of the population accounted for 63% of all violent crime convictions. The three strikes law is designed to keep these habitual offenders in prison so that the rest of the society can experience greater safety.
4. It provides justice for victims.
One of the biggest fears that most victims have is that the offender who committed a crime against them will one day return to do the same thing once again. This is especially true when considering violent crime. Although any system of justice implemented by humans is going to be imperfect at some level, the three strikes law helps to protect victims and give them the peace of mind that they need.
5. The three strikes law applies to convictions only.
Because convictions are the emphasis of the law, people are still treated as being innocent until proven guilty. No matter how many arrests may occur for an individual, if they are not convicted of a crime, then they don’t have any strikes count against them on their record.
What Are the Cons of a 3 Strikes Law?
1. People with three non-violent felonies can qualify.
The goal of the three strikes law was to put away offenders for life who were at the greatest risk of committing a violent crime. Many people who have committed non-violent felonies, and in California, sometimes misdemeanors, have been given mandatory life sentences. When petty crime qualifies for such a harsh sentence, it is more of a reflection on the society than the criminal involved.
2. It may not always be an effective deterrent to crime.
Less than a decade after three strikes laws were implemented in California, the data showed that violent crime had increased within the state. The Centers on Juvenile and Criminal Justice found in 2001 that such laws were ineffective. This data was corroborated in 2012 by research conducted at the University of California-Riverside, suggesting that reductions in crime were trending downward before these laws were implemented.
3. It leads to prison overpopulation.
The United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, but is responsible for 25% of the world’s prison population. By enacting tough laws like the three strikes law, then supplementing it with options like truth-in-sentencing laws, prisons have seen a surge in population numbers since the 1990s. This is despite the fact that crime rates have plummeted in the US since 1993.
4. It assumes that rehabilitation will not work.
An effective justice system is one that balances the needs of a society with the needs of the individual who is convicted of a crime. By implementing a three strikes law, the flexibility of the court and the discernment of the judge are taken out of the sentencing equation.
5. It requires two convictions to become an effective deterrent.
Although the mandatory lifetime sentence (or 25 years to life in some states) is an effective deterrent to discourage more crime, the law requires two convictions for such a sentence to be imposed. Depending on the previous felonies, a criminal could have a lengthy stay in prison already under their belt. That means there must be victims before the final deterrent can become useful.
6. People in certain socioeconomic classes can receive preferential treatment.
Robert Downey Jr. struggled with a drug problem before his days portraying Tony Stark and Iron Man in the Marvel Movie Universe. In 2000, he was facing a third felony possibility due to previous drug and weapons possession charges. Instead of being sentenced under the mandatory three strikes law, his team could strike a deal for treatment instead. Someone without those resources, however, would have been stuck with a 25-to-life sentence.
7. A third felony arrest is going to virtually guarantee the time and cost of a trial.
With a potential mandatory lifetime sentence on the line, anyone charged with a third felony is going to fight the charge with everything they have. This almost always guarantees that the time and cost of a trial is going to happen, even if the person has admitted their guilt. Prosecutors do not have the option, in most instances, to strike a deal for prison time unless the felony charge is removed because of the mandatory sentencing approach.
The three strikes law pros and cons show that it can provide a just result when applied appropriately. Our laws must also create an outlet to let those who have been convicted unjustly or for misdemeanors and felonies that are non-violent to have a way to opt out of the mandatory sentencing. Protecting the welfare of a society is important and so is how we treat those who may have the three strikes law in a potentially unjust manner.