The concept of “three strikes” doesn’t only apply to baseball; in Texas, it’s a legal doctrine that can significantly alter the course of an individual’s life. Much like several other states, Texas has a long history with its own version of the three strikes law.
This legal statute empowers judges to sentence individuals convicted of three felonies to life in prison, a decision that can forever change the fate of a defendant.
In this article, we will delve into how the Texas three strikes law operates, shedding light on its intricacies and implications. It is essential to comprehend this law to protect yourself and your loved ones from the potential of a lifetime spent behind bars.
Texas Felony Classifications
Texas categorizes felonies into five distinct classes, each carrying its own set of penalties based on the gravity of the offense and an individual’s prior felony convictions. Here are examples of offenses for each felony class:
State Jail Felony:
- Check forgery
- Interfering with child custody
- Credit card fraud
- False report or false alarm
- Burglarizing a building
- Evading arrest with a vehicle
- Identity theft
- DWI with a child passenger
Third Degree Felony:
- Tampering with evidence
- Deadly conduct with a firearm
- Certain types of theft
- Indecency with a child
- Certain types of assault
- Abandoning or endangering a child (without intent to return to the child)
- Smuggling of persons
- Sexual coercion
Second Degree Felony:
- Sexual Assault
- Improper relationship between educator and student
- Assault (by strangulation or suffocation against a peace officer or judge)
- Abandoning or endangering a child (exposure to imminent danger of death, bodily injury, or physical or mental impairment)
- Trafficking of persons (for forced labor or prostitution knowingly)
- Smuggling of persons (if there is a substantial likelihood the smuggled person will suffer serious bodily injury or death, or the smuggled person is under 18 years of age)
First Degree Felony:
- Trafficking of persons (person trafficked is younger than 18 or results in death, including the death of the victim’s unborn child)
- Aggravated kidnapping (without voluntary release of victim in a safe place)
- Continuous sexual abuse of a young child or children
- Aggravated sexual assault
- Tampering with consumer product (resulting in serious bodily injury)
- Murder (other than under immediate influence of sudden passion from an adequate cause)
- Capital Murder: murder with certain aggravating circumstances
- Treason: levying war against the United States or aiding its enemies
- Very few drug-related offenses: drug kingpin activity, holding or moving very large quantities (industrial scale) of hard drugs – sometimes resulting in life imprisonment. The U.S. has not yet used the death penalty for such crimes. .
- Murder with certain aggravating circumstances
Exceptions: There are very few drug-related offenses, such as drug kingpin activity or holding or moving very large quantities (industrial scale) of hard drugs, which can result in life imprisonment. The U.S. has not yet used the death penalty for such crimes.
The Texas Three Strikes Law in Detail
In Texas, accumulating three felony convictions triggers a potential prison sentence ranging from 25 years to life. Each of these three felonies counts as a strike against the accused, with each strike leading to increasingly severe consequences. Here’s how the law classifies each crime, its enhancement, and the corresponding penalties:
First Strike: Initial Felony Conviction
- Third-degree felony: Results in a 2 to 10-year prison sentence and a fine of up to $10,000.
- Second-degree felony: Carries a 2 to 20-year prison term and a fine not exceeding $10,000.
- First-degree felony: Imposes a minimum 5-year sentence, a maximum 99-year sentence, and fines of up to $10,000.
Second Strike: Second Felony Conviction
- Third-degree felony: The offense is elevated to a second-degree felony charge, with up to $10,000 in fines and a prison sentence of 10 to 20 years.
- Second-degree felony: The offense is upgraded to a first-degree felony charge, resulting in a prison sentence of up to 99 years and a fine not exceeding $10,000.
- First-degree felony: The mandatory minimum sentence increases from 5 to 15 years, with a maximum of 99 years in prison. A maximum $10,000 fine still applies.
During the second strike, the death penalty is not applicable unless the second felony conviction involves capital murder. Additionally, certain crimes, often of a violent or sexual nature, may lead to a life sentence without the possibility of parole, even after just two strikes. Some of these crimes include indecency with a child, sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, aggravated kidnapping, and violent crimes involving torture.
Third Strike: Third Felony Conviction
A third felony conviction, whether first, second, or third-degree, along with capital offenses, constitutes a third strike. At this point, penalties reach their maximum severity, and individuals found guilty of three strikes face a maximum sentence of life in prison, with a minimum of at least 25 years behind bars.
State Jail Felonies: Third Strike
State jail felonies do not count as strikes. However, repeat offenders convicted of state jail felonies still face enhanced sentencing and penalties. A third state jail felony is elevated to a third-degree felony charge, resulting in a prison term of 2 to 10 years and fines of up to $10,000.
Individuals convicted of a state jail felony with two prior first, second, or third-degree felony convictions will see their charge enhanced to a second-degree felony. This carries a prison term of 2 to 20 years and a fine not exceeding $10,000.
Key Features of the Texas Three Strikes Law in Practice
The Texas three strikes law, like similar laws in other states, possesses several features that impact its application, consequences, and public perception. Here are eight essential aspects of the Texas three strikes law:
- Final Convictions: Prior convictions must be finalized. Both prior felonies must have occurred, been tried, and ultimately convicted before the commission of the third felony. Unconvicted felonies, whether prior or concurrent, do not count toward the three strikes law.
- State Jail Felonies: State jail felonies do not count as strikes. Nevertheless, repeat offenders of state jail felonies face enhanced sentencing and penalties, with their charges elevated accordingly.
- Out-of-State Convictions: Prior felonies committed in other states are considered when applying the three strikes law in Texas, contributing to enhanced sentencing requirements.
- Mandatory Sentencing: In Texas, the rules regarding punishments for those guilty of three strikes are not mere recommendations; they are mandatory. The minimum mandatory prison sentence must be at least 25 years. However, judges retain some discretion in setting the precise number of years within the range of 25 to 99.
- Judicial Discretion: Judges may impose any prison term within the range of years allocated to each enhanced felony.
- Judicial Leniency: In certain cases where a possible third strike is pending, Texas judges may reduce the conviction to a state jail felony, depending on the crime’s severity, as a means to avoid overly harsh punishments or alleviate overcrowding in the penal system.
- Misdemeanors and Enhanced Misdemeanors: Although misdemeanors on their own do not count as strikes, enhanced misdemeanors may result in a strike if they are upgraded to a felony charge following a subsequent felony offense.
- Expunged Felonies: Some expunged felonies may still be used in the state’s three strikes law.
History of the Texas Three Strikes Law
Habitual offender laws, which increase penalties for repeat offenders, have existed throughout U.S. history. On the federal level, the U.S. government introduced its own habitual offender laws in 1952 as part of the U.S. Justice Department’s Anti-Violence Strategy. These laws addressed individuals committing multiple felonies or misdemeanors.
One of the significant milestones in the evolution of habitual offender laws was the passage of the “1994 Crime Bill” by Congress, also known as the “Three Strikes, You’re Out” law or the “Clinton Crime Bill.” Between 1993 and 1994, 23 U.S. states adopted their own three strikes laws, and today, 28 states have similar laws in place.
Texas was among the early adopters of this legal practice, enacting its first three strikes law with a mandatory life sentence in 1952. Since its inception, the Texas three strikes law has generated both support and opposition. Legal and ethical arguments continue to revolve around the disproportionate punishments in comparison to many crimes and potential violations of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.
The original intent of these laws, both nationally and within states like Texas, was to protect society from violent and habitual criminals, especially those likely to reoffend. Proponents also believed that these laws would deter both previously convicted and potential criminals, leading to a substantial reduction in overall crime rates. However, actual crime rates have not significantly decreased in accordance with initial predictions, despite fluctuations influenced by various factors.
Arguments against three strikes and habitual offender laws include:
- Ineffectiveness: There is no substantial decrease in violent or high-level crimes.
- Escalation of Violence: Repeat offenders may become more violent, as they perceive they have “nothing to lose” to avoid the consequences of a third strike.
- Burden on the Penal System: Overcrowded prisons result in poor quality of life, increased tension, rising violence, and added strain on staff.
- Financial Costs: Incarceration is expensive, with an average annual cost ranging from $20,000 to $140,000 per inmate. Aging inmates often incur higher costs due to special needs and increased medical issues.
- Cruelty: Critics argue that three strikes laws violate the Eighth Amendment, which protects citizens from cruel and unusual punishments.
- Judicial Discretion Removal: These laws remove sentencing discretion from judges.
- Court Congestion: An increase in cases can clog the court system.
- Impact on Families and Communities: Life imprisonment can disrupt and destabilize families and communities relying on the stabilizing presence of incarcerated individuals.
- Disproportionate Sentencing: Punishments often do not align with the severity of the crime, leading to extended sentences or life imprisonment for theft, check fraud, or other non-violent offenses.
Numerous instances of questionable verdicts and sentences related to Texas’s three strikes law have fueled the ongoing debate. For instance, the controversial 1973 sentencing of William Rummel to life in prison for theft, involving a stolen credit card, a forged rent check, and cashing a check for an uncompleted repair job totaling $230.11, received widespread attention. In 1980, the United States Supreme Court upheld the original verdict, asserting that Rummel’s life sentence was neither cruel nor unusual punishment and did not infringe on his constitutional rights.
Similarly, cases like that of Larry Dayries in 2010, who was charged with theft after failing to pay for a sandwich, have raised concerns about the disproportionate application of three strikes laws to non-violent crimes.
The debate over the moral and constitutional aspects of three strikes laws continues in Texas and across the United States. Several states have made amendments to their laws, making it more challenging for non-violent offenders to face life sentences. However, countless individuals remain incarcerated for extended periods due to these rigid laws.
Regardless of one’s stance on habitual offender statutes, the most prudent course of action is always to avoid legal trouble altogether. However, if you or a loved one faces the possibility of a three strikes conviction, it is crucial to consult an experienced attorney immediately. Your attorney will serve as your strongest advocate, working tirelessly to protect your rights and seek the best possible outcome in your case.
Ben has vast experience in defending criminal cases ranging from DWIs to assault, drug possession, and many more. He has countless criminal charges dismissed and pled down. Among many other awards, one of the Top 10 Criminal Defense Attorneys in Texas and winner of Top 40 under 40.