New Jersey’s “Three Strikes” Law
Following the trend of many states (there are now 27 others with similar statutes), New Jersey’s legislature enacted, back in the 1990s, one of the toughest laws mandating life imprisonment for persons convicted of three or more violent crimes. Also known as “habitual offender” laws, these laws customarily require significant sentencing enhancements if a person is convicted of a third “violent” offense. The specific offenses considered to be violent vary from state to state, but generally include homicide, sexual assault, and burglary or robbery involving the use of a deadly weapon. Some defendants, however, have fallen under the three strikes laws from attempted theft or minor assaults, with one New Jersey man earning a life sentence for attempting to steal a purse (he knocked the victim down during that attempted theft).
It has long been the practice and within the domain of judges to increase sentencing for repeat offenders. It wasn’t until the early 20th century, though, that the state of New York enacted its “Persistent Felony Offender Law” (since ruled unconstitutional), giving judges additional legal support for extended sentences for repeat offenders.
The state of Washington passed the first true “three strikes” law in 1993, but it wasn’t initiated in the legislature, but through a voter initiative. California voters followed suit in 1994. Within 10 years, 26 states and the federal government all had some form of three strikes law.
A study conducted by Boston University prior to the enactment of Massachusetts’ three strikes law in 2012 found that nearly two-thirds of those states that had similar laws on the books had scaled them back, removing some of the provisions that made certain sentencing mandatory, and limiting the length of the sentences. The study also concluded that, with the exception of California and Georgia, most states actually imposed three strikes sanctions on a very limited basis.
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