three strikes

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Three strikes, or three-strikes law, is a criminal sentencing structure in which significantly harsher punishments are imposed on repeated offenders. Three-strikes laws generally mandate a life sentence for the third violation of violent felonies. For example, under California's three-strikes law, a defendant who is convicted of a felony and has previously been convicted of two or more serious or violent felonies must receive an "indeterminate term of life imprisonment."  New Jersey's three-strike law is similar, stating that "a person convicted of a crime . . . who has been convicted of two or more crimes that were committed on prior and separate occasions . . . shall be sentenced to a term of life imprisonment by the court, with no eligibility for parole." Furthermore, most three-strikes laws operate across jurisdictions, meaning that violations of serious felonies in one state will count as a strike for the purposes of another state's application of their three-strikes law. 

While three-strikes laws aim to reduce violent crime and address individuals whose conduct have not been deterred by more conventional approaches to punishment, they have been subject to constitutional challenges. Specifically, petitioners have challenged three-strikes laws for violating the Eighth Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court has shown deference to state legislatures and upheld three-strikes law on the basis that states have both "a valid interest in deterring and segregating habitual criminals" and the authority to make policy choices pursuant to that interest. Indeed, the Supreme Court has further explained that sentences should only be overturned where they are "grossly disproportionate" to the offense, a standard that is applicable only in "exceedingly rare" and "extreme" cases. 

[Last updated in September of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]