Three-Strikes and You’re In: The Unconstitutionality of the Three-Strikes Law

by Angela Zhao | July 13, 2015 2:20 pm

The Supreme Court has been cranking out hit after hit of rulings that show signs of our progress as a nation that views Americans as human beings: as ones who get sick, through upholding part of the Affordable Care Act, and as ones who love who they love, through legalizing same-sex marriage. However, the Three-Strikes Law Ruling was a pivotal win for the American people that went largely unnoticed as the media coverage swarmed the other decisions. In the 8-1 Supreme Court decision on Johnson v. United States, a provision in the Armed Career Criminal Act increasing sentence time for people who have had three previous serious or “violent” convictions was deemed unconstitutionally vague. This reflects a broader statement on nationwide Three-Strikes Laws which increase punishments and incarceration times for repeat offenses. The Three-Strikes Law locks people up and away from their loved ones for unfair lengths of time, and in certain states can incarcerate people and separate families, as a result of a third conviction, for life. Here are comments from those both directly and indirectly impacted by those who have suffered and survived mass incarceration.

“Twenty-Five to Life for a third strike or having one’s sentence doubled needs to be something that is absolutely clear, and killing a person a little each day requires much more than vagueness. I think the Supreme Court should have went much further because Three-Strike is a law that clearly indicates the triggering crime does not have to fit the sentence. We will never be able to satisfy thirst driven revenge.” – Dorsey Nunn from California, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children

Jorge Antonio Renaud

Jorge Antonio Renaud

“This ruling strikes a blow to the private prison industry that makes millions of dollars in profit on the backs of men and women who are unjustly sent to prison for longer sentences. But where this ruling truly makes an impact is by opening the door to true sentencing reform in general, specifically to a lessening of the trend toward extremely long sentencing, which is the engine that drives mass incarceration. While there has been much attention paid recently to efforts to divert individuals who commit low-level property and drug offenses, more than half of the population in each state is serving sentences for “violent” crimes. Coupled with low parole rates, this sets up a frightening future of millions of incarcerated individuals aging in dilapidated prisons with minimal health care provided by profit-driven private corporations leading dismal post-release prospects for those individuals. The SCOTUS ruling on Three-Strikes sentencing laws will begin a conversation that we hope will lead to a nationwide examination about sentencing individuals to decades in prison, and our willingness to look at the inhumane results of these policies.” – Jorge Antonio Renaud from Texas, Center for Community Change

Shannan Reaze (center)

Shannan Reaze (center)

“With more than 7,000 currently incarcerated people looking at potential reductions in their sentences because of the SCOTUS action on the Career Criminal Act, it is imperative we double our efforts to eliminate employment discrimination against people with records. When people come home we need to make sure they have the greatest opportunity to sustain themselves and their families. Fair Hiring Policies like Ban the Box help us make sure that this victory means our families will be restored and have economic sustainability post excessive sentences.” – Shannan Reaze from Georgia, 9to5

Lillie Branch-Kennedy

Lillie Branch-Kennedy

“The court is right when it says the catchall phrase that makes a person eligible for a longer term is too vague. Many defendants are encouraged by the prosecutor and court appointed attorney to ‘plea bargain’ the first and 2nd offense.  Surely, this becomes another gateway to 3-strikes regardless of the crime. – Lillie Branch-Kennedy, Founder, RIHD, Inc

The Three-Strikes Law opposes the belief in and proven effectiveness of rehabilitation. These laws encourage punishment rather than healing, and the vague wording surrounding them criminalizes far more people than is just. The strike down of the law reunites people with their families and increases opportunity. On a macro-level, it has the power to incite reform of the mass incarceration techniques that have kept people trapped physically, but also socially and economically from the effects of long-term imprisonment. Most importantly, it reminds us all that revenge is insatiable, and restoration of people, their lives and families is the only way to true reform.


Angela Zhao

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