Public concern over offenders with prior convictions committing new crimes resulted in the U.S. federal government and 25 states passing reforms during the 1990s that reduced judicial discretion at sentencing and enhanced the sentences of recidivist offenders who committed new crimes. Designed to deter offenders with prior records from committing new crimes and incapacitating them if they did, these reforms became known as three strikes laws because, in the parlance of baseball, with a third strike (conviction) an offender was out (received life imprisonment).

Three strikes laws are based in habitual offender statutes that many states already used to enhance the sentences of recidivists convicted of new crimes. First appearing in New York in the 1700s, habitual offender laws generally mandate significant enhancements—including life in prison ...

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