The overall rationale of the "Three Strikes Law" is the significant reduction of crime. It supposedly reduces crime in two ways: by making it more difficult for repeat offenders to commit even more crimes during extended incarceration; and by discouraging other offenders from committing more crimes due to the threat of Three Strikes sentencing (Brown & Jolivette, 2005). Imprisonment is supposed to modify the behavior of offenders and discourage them from committing more crimes; however, "habitual offenders" - those who repeatedly commit serious crimes - are supposedly not responsive to behavior modification through imprisonment and not deterred by the prospect of prison. Consequently, the habitual offender is difficult for the justice system to handle, so this special law -- the "Three Strikes Law" -- was designed to deal with them (Brown & Jolivette, 2005).
The "Three Strikes Law" is a product of the "get tough on crime" movement in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s, when politicians seized on citizens' anger and fear of crime and made it a strong political issue (Vitiello, 1997, p. 395). Based on the baseball rule of "three strikes, you're out," the Three Strikes Law provides that a person who has been convicted of two serious criminal offenses (felonies), must be sentenced to an exceptionally long-term of incarceration if he/she is found guilty of committing a third offense (Sutton, 2013, p. 40). Variations of the Three Strikes Law were enacted in at least 26 states (Brown & Jolivette, 2005), with the earliest and most severe enacted in California in 1994 after two particularly heinous murders committed by repeat felony offenders. In California, the "third strike" could be designated at the prosecutor's discretion and did not need to be a serious crime (Sutton, 2013, p. 40).
While proponents of the Three Strikes Law maintain that it has reduced crime, the law had some alarming consequences. The disturbing consequences of California's Three Strikes Law are perhaps the most conspicuous. First, since the "third strike" could be designated by the prosecutor and did not need to be a serious crime, repeat offenders who committed petty and/or nonviolent third crimes were sentenced to life imprisonment. For three examples, repeat offenders were given life sentences for "stealing one dollar in loose change from a parked car, possessing less than a gram of narcotics, and attempting to break into a soup kitchen" (Stanford University, 2015). Secondly, the imposition of life sentences for petty nonviolent crimes contributed to prison overcrowding and added $19 billion to the state's prison budget because California had to incarcerate, guard, feed, clothe, medically care for and otherwise handle many more inmates (Stanford University, 2015). Third, California's Three Strikes Law disproportionately affects minorities (over 45% of whom are African-American),