In 26 States of the U.S, if you’ve committed a violent crime such as an armed robbery and you then go on to commit two further crimes you can end up in jail for up to 25 years, no matter how minor the third offense was.
This strict rule is the three strikes policy. It is supposed to deter criminals from partaking in even the most minor criminal activity like smoking cannabis.
In Texas, the three strikes law has a significant effect on the levels of crime. Here’s what you need to know about the Texas three strikes law.
Tough on Crime
Repeat offenders are always treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than first-time offenders or indeed those habitual offenders who just haven’t got caught.
Drinking whilst under the influence of drugs or alcohol (DWI) carries tougher sentences in Texas for each offense committed. A strict probation program is supposed to stop repeat offenders. Learn more here.
The Habitual Offender Statute as it is known in Texas, however, goes further. It imposes prison terms that can amount to decades or even life behind bars for offenders of minor crimes who already have felony convictions.
Texas was one of the first states to introduce a so-called three strikes law in 1974.
But such laws gained popularity amongst other states during the 1990s. Federal politicians from both sides of the aisle sought to position themselves as the law and order candidates who would be ‘tough on crime’.
Bill Clinton and many ‘New Democrats’ positioned the party further to the right in the 1990s. This was an attempt to win back conservative votes after 12 years of Republican rule under Presidents Ronald Regan and George H.W. Bush.
In attempts to show the party was not weak or too radical, Clinton introduced an anti-crime bill. This created over 60 new offenses that were subject to the death penalty, removed the provision for higher education to prisoners and increased the number of police officers and prison places to numbers not seen before.
The billions of dollars pumped into prisons meant it was easier than ever for offenders to be locked away for long periods of time. This was better than letting repeat offenders ‘roam the streets’.
Jailed For Life For Stealing a Sandwich?
The law in Texas states that anyone who has been found guilty of a third felony must face a minimum jail sentence of 25 years. But crucially anyone who has previously been found guilty of a felony will automatically be considered for a harsher sentence than someone without a criminal record.
In the most extreme example of how the three strike law in Texas can impact an offenders sentence, Larry Dayries of Austin ordered a tuna on a sourdough sandwich at his local branch or Wholefoods. When he walked out without paying, a warrant was put out for his arrest.
The security guard at the shopping mall claims Dayries pulled a knife on him. Dayries denies this.
A month later he was arrested, put on trial and found guilty of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. Because of his two previous convictions and his refusal to enter into a plea-bargain, Dayries was sentenced under the three-strikes law to 70 years in jail at Travis County. This is a de-facto life sentence as he would be 111 by the time he finished this sentence.
One of the factors in determining whether a defendant is sentenced under the three strikes rule is the classification of the sentence. If it is a felony then the judge has no choice but to sentence it under the guidelines set out under the three strikes rule.
However, the political climate has moved on since the 1990s. Overcrowding has become an issue in some prisons. There is political pressure from campaign groups like Black Lives Matter that has challenged the Clinton era reforms as racially motivated.
Even some conservatives now realize that the three strikes law can lead to untenable over-crowding. Many understand it is not a long term solution to violent crime. Today it is easier to talk about crime as a bad lifestyle choice with many feeling that changing bad habits to foster lifestyle change could be a way of preventing repeat offenses.
Despite this, it is important to note that violent crime reduced by around 74% between 1993 and 2017.
In this context, judges are now more likely to classify crimes of third-time offenders as state jail offenses. This means the crimes don’t count as the ‘third strike’ giving the defendant one last chance.
Supreme Court Challenges
There have been legal challenges over the legality of the three strikes laws. In 1980 William Rummell took the state of Texas to court, arguing his sentence of life imprisonment for theft amounted to ‘cruel and unusual punishment’.
This would have been a violation of his rights under the eighth amendment of the U.S Constitution.
None of his convictions were violent or classified as aggravated under the law. The first offense was for using a stolen credit card, his second conviction was for forging a rent check and his third was for simply cashing a check for work that he had not completed. Texas State sent him to jail for life.
The court eventually ruled that the length of the sentence in relation to a relatively minor crime did not count as cruel and unusual punishment.
Don’t Get Caught Out by the Texas Three Strikes Law
The Texas three strikes law can be tricky to get your head around. But if you or someone you know in Texas has got a previous criminal record and have committed another offense then they could be in legal trouble.
If you’re interested in criminal law be sure to check out our article on the 7 deadly sins of law school.