Comparing the Strike Zones of “Three Strikes and You’re Out” Laws for California and Georgia, the Nation’s Two Heaviest Hitters
On November 4, 1995, Leandro Andrade was arrested for the benign offense of shoplifting $84.70 worth of children’s movies from a K-Mart store located in Ontario, California. Just fourteen days later, Andrade was again arrested for stealing $68.84 of children’s movies in Montclair, California. A life of crime was nothing new to Andrade. In fact, Andrade had been in and out of prison since 1982 for a host of offenses, including petty theft, first-degree residential burglary, and transporting marijuana.
In 1994, California adopted a “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law (three strikes law), which is an antirecidivist law that mandates a sentence of twenty-five years to life in prison upon a criminal’s third felony conviction if the criminal has two prior serious or violent felony convictions. The State charged and convicted Andrade of two counts of petty theft with a prior conviction for shoplifting children’s videotapes—a felony in California. Tragically, because Andrade had two prior violent or serious felony convictions, a judge sentenced Andrade to serve two consecutive terms of twenty-five years to life in prison. Leandro Andrade will not be eligible for parole until 2046, at which time he will be eighty-seven years old.
If California’s three strikes law is considered overly broad, at the opposite end of the spectrum is Georgia’s version, which only applies to seven specific offenses. Colloquially known as Georgia’s “Seven Deadly Sins Law” (two strikes law), Georgia’s two strikes law is considered the nation’s harshest because it only takes two strikes—as opposed to three—for a criminal to be “out.” A criminal who is convicted for committing a second serious violent felony is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole or any other sentence-reducing measures. In Ortiz v. State, Robert Ortiz was charged and convicted of rape, aggravated sodomy, and burglary in Georgia. Because the crimes of rape and aggravated sodomy are categorized as serious violent felonies, Ortiz will spend the rest of his life behind bars without any hope for parole.
Here are two versions of a three strikes law, two repeat offenders with differing criminal histories, two very different triggering offenses, and yet, both Leandro Andrade and Robert Ortiz will spend the rest of their lives behind bars. The message both California and Georgia are trying to send to recidivists, although not equally clear in California’s case, is that if you continually commit a certain class of felonies, you are going to prison for life. Yet, when juxtaposed, these specific outcomes inevitably beg the question: Does incarcerating a repeat offender for life—in Andrade’s case, for petty theft—violate the Eighth Amendment’s proscription against cruel and unusual punishment? Moreover, do the social and financial costs saved from prevented crimes warrant the frequent use of three strikes laws in California and Georgia? Or rather, are these laws needlessly filling prisons with lifelong prisoners who, as they age, will only cost states more to incarcerate?
This Note compares California’s and Georgia’s versions of a three strikes law. Part II of this Note briefly discusses the meaning of the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court. Additionally, Part II explains the respective mechanics and effects of both California’s and Georgia’s versions. Finally, Part III of this article seeks to substantiate several claims: first, the United States Supreme Court has significantly diverged from its prior decisions interpreting the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause regarding noncapital punishments; second, Georgia’s version of a three strikes law warrants greater judicial deference than California’s; and third, although both California’s and Georgia’s versions of a three strikes law contribute to prison overcrowding and increased costs in their respective states, California’s version causes a greater burden. . .
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