Jamie looked resignedly at his public defender. “Fine. Fine. Yeah, I stole that crap from Walmart. Big deal. I’ll plead guilty, the judge’ll give me probation, and I can get on with my life. Right?”
But his lawyer shook her head. “You don’t understand. The DA’s charging this one as burglary. A felony.”
“So? I do a stint in jail.”
“Prison. And more than a stint.”
He frowned at her. “For stealing movies from Walmart?”
“Remember those two convictions you had for assault with a deadly weapon?”
“Those were over twenty years ago! I was a stupid kid. But I did my time, and I haven’t touched a gun or anything since.”
“I know.” The lawyer sighed. “But you have two violent felony convictions. You’re looking at 25 to life.”
Poor Jamie has just found himself on the wrong end of a three-strikes law.
Several jurisdictions have passed these laws; most were enacted in the mid 90s, in the midst of the push to get tough on crime. They’re also known as habitual offender laws—or, more familiarly, the Bitch (as in, poor Jamie just got Bitched). The purpose of these laws was to increase penalties for repeat offenders.
The laws vary across jurisdiction, but they generally increase penalties severely for third offenses. And by severely, we could be talking life sentences. In order to qualify, the offender must have been convicted of his third (or greater) felony. In some cases the first two felonies might need to be for violent offenses, but the third one need not. In California, for instance, someone like Jamie could face life for a fairly minor third felony.
Another interesting facet about three-strikes laws is that in some cases—like California—the first two strikes can be for certain violent offenses that were prosecuted by juvenile courts. That takes a lot of people by surprise.
Incidentally, there’s no real indication that these laws reduce crime. But they could make an interesting plot point.