Crafted in response to rising crime rates and high rates of recidivism, mandatory sentencing laws targeting repeat offenders began to appear during the early 1990s. In order to ensure that serious offenders were sentenced to longer periods of time, these statutes severely limited the degree of latitude which judges were allowed to exercise in sentencing.
Perhaps the most controversial such policy was adopted by the state of California in 1994. That year’s Proposition 184 introduced what has become known as the “three-strikes” rule. Intended to target habitual offenders, Prop 184 mandates that any offender who is found guilty of a third felony after being convicted of two separate serious or violent felonies must receive a minimum sentence of 25-years-to-life.
Though half the states and the federal government have enacted their own versions of “three-strikes” for repeat offenders, the legitimacy of three-strikes laws remains an open question. Crime rates have declined to historic lows in California, but academics disagree over the degree to which three-strikes is responsible for the decrease in serious crime. In addition, the constitutionality of three-strikes laws were challenged in the 2003 Supreme Court case Ewing v. California, though eventually upheld in a narrow 5-4 decision. With incarceration rates on the rise and state budgets tightening each year, these statutes remain a pressing concern both as a matter of principle and of practicality.
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