Habitual offender laws, commonly known as “three strikes” laws, are intended to prevent recidivism by imposing harsher punishments for subsequent felony convictions. However well-intentioned the original authors of these laws may have been, many sentences imposed under these laws have been described as unreasonably harsh, unjust, or even wasteful. Some defendants have received prison sentences ranging from twenty-five years to life for seemingly minor offenses like theft, but the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of three strikes laws several times. Voters in California, which has one of the nation’s toughest three strikes laws, approved Proposition 36 on November 6, 2012, which will significantly reform the law. The Texas three strikes law is not as strict as California’s, but it remains very much in effect.
California lawmakers and voters enacted the three strikes law in 1994. The law prescribed enhanced penalties for second and third violent or “serious” felony convictions. For a second felony conviction, the law requires a sentence that is double the length the defendant might otherwise serve. A third felony conviction, known as a third strike, would bring a mandatory minimum sentence of twenty-five years. The law requires consecutive sentencing, meaning that a defendant convicted of a third and a fourth felony would serve two consecutive twenty-five-year sentences. In practice, the law has saddled minor criminals with lengthy prison sentences for offenses like theft by check and caused prison overcrowding. Horror stories of people sentenced to decades behind bars suggest that the law has a vastly disproportionate effect on low-income individuals and minorities.
Proposition 36, approved by California voters by a margin of 68.6 to 31.4 percent, will modify the law to require a violent felony conviction, rather than a “serious” one, to trigger a third strike. California Penal Code § 667.5(c) identifies twenty-three types of offenses deemed “violent” for three-strikes purposes. Supporters of the proposition hope that this will limit the application of the three-strikes law to violent repeat offenders, who were the law’s original target.
The Texas three strikes law, enacted in 1974, was among the earliest habitual offender laws in the country. While California’s law looks at the nature of the felony, Texas largely focuses on its classification in the penal code. Texas Penal Code § 12.42 prescribes various enhanced penalties based on the degree of the current and prior felony convictions. For example, a defendant convicted of a state jail felony, who has two prior state jail felony convictions, shall be sentenced according to the guidelines for third-degree felonies. For first-degree felonies, however, Texas law prescribes a minimum fifteen-year sentence, up to a maximum life sentence, for a second or third strike, except that a life sentence is mandatory for specified offenses. Such offenses include indecency with a child, aggravated kidnapping, sexual assault, or aggravated sexual assault. Interestingly, an investigation by Houston’s KHOU 11 News found that the three strikes law might not lead to longer prison sentences due to prison overcrowding and tight budgets. Judges might sentence a defendant for a state jail offense instead of a felony to cut costs, meaning that the conviction does not count as a “strike.”
Michael J. Brown, a board-certified criminal defense attorney, fights for the rights of Texas defendants, making certain that law enforcement and the courts abide by all the rules and procedures of the criminal justice system. To learn more about how we can assist you in your legal matter, contact us online or at (432) 687-5157.
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Expunction of a Criminal Record in Texas is Almost Never a Routine Procedure, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, August 19, 2008
Motions for Nondisclosure of a Criminal Record in Texas, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, May 30, 2008