NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Prosecutors Prefer "Habitual Offender" Statutes to "Three-Strikes" Laws

February 28, 2002

Twenty-six states adopted "three strikes" laws in the 1990s as a tool to get tough on crime. Now, most prosecutors shun them -- opting instead for less drastic habitual offender laws or for charging recidivists with parole violations.

Under the three-strike laws, repeat felons are given life terms in prison.

Reportedly, only California -- which has the nation's toughest three-strikes law -- makes much use of it. And two recent decisions by a federal appeals court have undermined the California law's harshest provision, one that has sent some small-time crooks away for decades for shoplifting a pizza or a few videotapes.

  • California authorities credit the laws for reducing crime in their state by more than 40 percent.
  • But a report by the Sentencing Project, a group which opposes the laws, says serious crime also dropped 41 percent from 1993 to 1999 in New York state, 33 percent in Massachusetts and 31 percent in Washington, D.C. -- jurisdictions which have no three-strike laws.
  • California currently has 7,072 offenders serving 25 years to life on three-strikes convictions -- among them 331 petty-theft offenders.
  • While California allows a third-strike conviction for any felony, including shoplifting, all other three-strike states require that the three offenses be for violent crimes or serious felonies.

In November and February the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled sentencing defendants to life when then their third strike is petty theft violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment."

Source: Martin Kazindorf, "Three-Strikes Laws Fall Out of Favor," USA Today, February 28, 2002.

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