Donald J. Trump proclaimed himself the “law and order candidate” in his speech at the Republican national convention, announcing that violent crime is through the roof in major cities across America. Mr. Trump seemed to imply that criminals should face even harsher penalties for their wrongdoing. After all, shouldn’t we do whatever we can to keep “bad guys” off the streets? So why then are some states deciding to scale back on strict laws that send three-time offenders to jail for life?
What are Three-Strikes Laws?
28 states have laws in place that give alleged offenders harsh, mandatory penalties (generally a life sentence) for their third felony. Similarly, other states have what are known as habitual offender laws, in which an offender can face an enhanced penalty for a crime committed after a certain number of felonies. Three-strikes and habitual offender laws varies state by state and can depend on factors such as the seriousness of the felonies, the length of time between felonies, and the discretion of the judges.
Recently, New Mexico passed their own three-strikes legislation, adding 16 felonies to the list of crimes that make repeat offenders eligible for life sentences. The bill passed 47-15 in the House of Representatives, even after Democratic lawmakers protested, calling the law too broad and outdated.
Delaware Does Away with Its Three-Strikes Law
Some states have decided to take a very different attitude towards repeat offenders. Delaware decided to amend their three-strikes law after the House of Representatives approved a bill on June 21st. Delaware’s defeated Habitual Offender law mandated a life sentence for offenders who had committed three violent felonies. Additionally, people who were found guilty of three nonviolent felonies and one violent felony used to be required to serve the felony conviction’s maximum sentence.
Under Delaware’s new sentencing law, there will be no mandatory life sentences handed down to habitual offenders— although judges will still be able to give life sentences at their discretion. Additionally, the new law permits offenders who are currently serving time under the old three-strikes law to enter into a review process to appeal their sentence.
The repeal of Delaware’s Habitual Offender law sparked outrage from some lawmakers, who argued that the new legislation ignored the victims of violent crime and posed a risk to public safety with dangerous criminals allowed back on the street. However, those in favor of the new law pointed out that the Habitual Offender law caused offenders to be saddled with disproportionate and unfair sentences. For example, under the Habitual Offender law, someone convicted of burglarizing a house could be given the same sentence as someone convicted of murder. Critics charged that the Habitual Offender law gave prosecutors all the power in sending offenders away for life, leaving judges with no discretion.
The Nationwide Fallout of Three Strikes Laws
The first three-strike law in the nation was passed in Washington State in 1993. The law categorizes a number of violent crimes as “strikes,” including second-degree robbery. Someone can be charged with second-degree robbery even if they weren’t armed at the time of the crime and didn’t physically harm anyone.
If that second-degree robbery is your third strike, you could get sent to prison for life in Washington. Skyrocketing prison populations, the failure of three-strikes laws to take offenders’ individual circumstances into account, and the lack of judicial discretion in three-strikes cases are common shortcomings of three-strikes laws.
Over the years, some have tried to modify the three-strikes law in Washington. Such efforts included requests to remove crimes like second-degree robbery from the list of strike offenses. Additionally, legislation has been proposed to allow certain three-strike offenders convicted of lesser felony crimes to have their sentences reviewed after 15 years of jail time by the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board.
However, there are still those who oppose changes to the law. These people argue that voters have made it very clear that they want habitual offenders off the streets, by whatever means necessary.