The three-strikes law is a law for habitual offenders that imposes mandatory sentences for people convicted of their third felony. In 1993, the state of Washington passed the first three-strikes law in the United States, followed by California in 1994.1 That same year, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the most sweeping crime bill in U.S. history, which paved the way for 26 more states to follow in California and Washington’s footsteps – including Georgia. The law varies from state to state and some variations include the severity of the sentences for offenders, the specific crimes the laws cover and whether it applies to felonies or misdemeanors.2
The purpose of the three-strikes law seems quite simple – to keep the most violent criminals behind bars. The three-strikes law has failed in completing this purpose. In the United States, more than half of the inmates serving sentences under the three-strikes law were convicted for non-violent crimes.3
In Georgia, there are two parts to three-strikes legislation, under O.C.G.A.17-10-7. The first part states that defendants with one prior felony are to be sentenced with the longest sentence prescribed for a subsequent offense. Under this statute, judges can use discretion to suspend or probate the sentence. However, felonies with mandatory life sentences are unable to be suspended or probated.
The second part of the law states that after three felonies, defendants are to serve the maximum sentence prescribed by their fourth felony. Parole and early release are unavailable to these defendants, as the law requires them to serve every day of the imposed sentence.4 Georgia is part of a handful of states that continue to require repeat felony offenders to serve their full sentences.5
As one of the first states to enact three-strikes legislation, California was once known as the state with the harshest version of a three-strikes law – divvying out mandatory life sentences to defendants on their third felony conviction. For many years, 90 percent of all three-strikes sentences handed outcome from California.6 Nowadays, states like Texas and Georgia are seen as the harshest when handing out three-strikes sentences.7
Mania from the abduction and murder of a 12-year old girl from California by a man serving parole, as well as the growing anti-crime movement of the 1990s, is what many consider the reason for California’s harsh laws. In 2012, California citizens voted to amend the three-strikes law under Proposition 36, which commuted or shortened the sentence of over 1,000 inmates serving life sentences under the three-strikes law and reduced its usage to only cover felonies considered violent or serious.8 While this reform was significant, it failed to address the heart of the issue with the three-strikes law: it should not exist.
Proponents of the three-strikes law point to data that shows that having a three-strikes law on the books reduces an area’s crime rates. In California, the violent crime rate dropped 26.9 percent following the passage of the three-strikes law. However, similar trends were seen throughout the entire United States, even in states that did not pass three-strikes legislation, over the same period, showing that the three-strikes law is not an effective crime deterrent. A study analyzing the impact of the three-strikes law in California ten years after its passage showed evidence that, at best, the three-strikes law led to diminishing returns in crime deterrence.9 Another study showed that crime rates were decreasing in California for at least two years before the passage of the three-strikes law.
As well as that, the three-strikes law disproportionately impacts historically marginalized populations, such as people of color and people with mental illness.10 The three-strikes law has only exacerbated the long-standing issue of racial disparities in criminal justice, with already larger populations of Black and Latinx Americans incarcerated only increasing following the passage of these laws. In the United States, people of color represent 78.5% of Americans serving life sentences.11 The majority of data shows that the three-strikes law is largely ineffective in preventing recidivism and deterring crime. In fact, the only thing these laws seem to accomplish easily is putting and keeping people in prison. The three-strikes law treats incarcerated individuals unfairly, only seeking to punish them instead of providing avenues for reform. Abolishing the three-strikes law and other laws like it across the United States would be a much-needed first step for widespread prison reform across the country.