Habitual Criminal Offenders and Maryland’s Three Strikes LawNobody’s perfect. We all make mistakes, and when we do they often aren’t the most terrible ones in the world. Maybe when you were a teen, you stole something from a convenience store, or perhaps you were mixed up in a bad crowd and were involved in a fight. An arrest doesn’t have to make you a bad person, but it does add up if you’re convicted.

For example, recently in Pennsylvania, a homeless man, Joseph Sobolewski, who did not pay the remaining 43 cents on his bill for a bottle of Mountain Dew was brought up on felony theft charges, and he was in danger of having to serve seven years in prison, and his bail was set at $500,00 cash only. All for 43 cents that he had not even known he owed at all.

Thankfully, after the man was in jail for only seven days, his state-appointed public defender was able to have him released, and the charges against him were dropped. But not everyone is as lucky as he turned out to be in this case. Why had he almost faced so harsh a punishment for 43 cents? “Sobolewski had twice in the past 10 years been charged with theft, once for not paying for a tank of gas and another time for stealing a pair of shoes from a store. Under Pennsylvania’s three-strikes law, a third theft charge must be a felony, regardless of the amount or value involved.”

What is the Three Strikes Law?

Many states, including Maryland, have what is called a Three Strikes law. The Three Strikes law dictates that if you have been convicted of two prior misdemeanors, then the third misdemeanor will be charged as a felony offense. Three Strikes and you’re out.  A review from the U.S. Justice Department in 1997 defines what it means to be “out:”

States differ as to what sanction will be imposed when sufficient strikes have accumulated. Mandatory life sentences with no possibility of parole are imposed when a person is out in Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

In Maryland specifically, the Three Strikes Law was updated in 1994. This made it so that if you are convicted of three felonies, and have served the minimum ten years of each sentence, then on your fourth felony conviction, you will be automatically sentenced to life in prison.

Pros and cons of the Three Strikes Law

Why was the Three Strikes Law put into place? Who does it help? And who does it hurt? The list of “pro” talking points include:

  • It is a deterrent against crime. Strong laws supposedly deter crime.
  • It keeps habitual offenders in prison. Many inmates are often reincarcerated within five years of their release from jail. Third Strike allegedly punishes repeat offenders who would likely commit another crime if released from jail.
  • It provides justice for victims. This applies heavily to victims of violent crime, and I can understand the need for that satisfaction. I just think it’s lousy.
  • The three strikes law applies to convictions only. If you’re not convicted for the crimes you’re charged with, then this law does not apply to you.

It’s clear that some people think there is some valid reasoning behind the Three Strikes Law, but I mostly think it’s a mess. Some cons of the law include:

  • People with three non-violent felonies can qualify. “The goal of the three strikes law was to put away offenders for life who were at the greatest risk of committing a violent crime.” Why should someone who hasn’t done anything to hurt anyone go to prison for the rest of their lives?
  • It may not always be an effective deterrent to crime. Since the law has been put into effect, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that it is helping decrease violent crimes.
  • It leads to prison overpopulation. Prisons are tremendously overpopulated, and the Three Strikes Law is not helping by putting people behind bars, especially when they may not need to go to prison at all.
  • It assumes that rehabilitation will not work. Are we human if we cannot hope to better ourselves? “An effective justice system is one that balances the needs of a society with the needs of the individual who is convicted of a crime. By implementing a three strikes law, the flexibility of the court and the discernment of the judge are taken out of the sentencing equation.”
  • People in certain socioeconomic classes can receive preferential treatment. Wealthier people might be able to find a way out of serving the final punishment of life in prison for their third strike, but a poorer person would not have those same resources.
  • A third felony arrest is going to virtually guarantee the time and cost of a trial. If you’re charged with this third felony, then you are going to fight tooth and nail because you know that, if you don’t, you’re likely going to have to spend the rest of your days in prison. This already predetermines exactly how long and costly the trial is likely to be.

The Three Strikes Law is a complicated one, and an unjust one to boot. It often leads to an unfair sentencing for someone who hasn’t hurt anyone. If you’re facing t your third strike or you have questions concerning it, call Drew Cochran, Attorney at Law at 410-271-1892 to schedule an appointment. Feel free to use my contact page as well.

And remember – Keep Calm, and Call Drew.