The three-strikes rule in American law is often associated with drug users, but in reality, the rule varies from state to state. Usually, the three-strikes rule states that offenders who are guilty of more than two serious offenses-- usually felonies-- can be sentenced to life in prison (Stanford University Law School, 2013). These offenses may be violent offenses like child abuse or rape, or they may be non-violent offenses like drug possession or possession with intent to distribute (Staples, 2012). The reason why so many people decry the three-strikes rule as unfair or even potentially unethical is because the three strikes rule has led to many non-violent offenders being locked away in prison for a very long time-- sometimes even for life (Staples, 2012).
The problem with the three strike rule is not that it seeks to punish offenders who repeatedly run afoul of the law-- one of the functions of law enforcement and legal professionals is to find ways to punish offenders, but also to find ways to halt offenses before they happen. Instead, the problem with the three-strike rule as it applies in law is that it severely lacks nuance. An individual can be put away for twenty-five years to life for an action that, under any other circumstances, would be punished with a slap on the wrist (Staples, 2012). One excellent example of this is the man who was sent to prison for life (his sentence was later reduced to six years) for stealing a piece of pizza from a group of children (Staples, 2012). Clearly, this is a ridiculous sentence-- and the sentencing is a failure of the justice system and the three-strike rule.
Because the three-strike rule can also apply to non-violent offenses like drug possession and drug possession with the intent to sell, prisons in places like California are becoming more and more crowded with non-violent offenders spending long periods of time behind bars for offenses that were not on par with offenses like rape or assault (Staples, 2012). The three-strikes rule does not necessarily need to be abandoned, but it does need to be reworked so that people are not crowding the already-overstretched prison system for inane or small-time criminal activity; there are major problems in the criminal justice system in America, and supporting laws that encourage blanket sentencing rather than nuanced sentencing exacerbates the problem.
Stanford University Law School (2012). Three Strikes Basics | Stanford Law School. [online] Retrieved from: http://www.law.stanford.edu/organizations/programs-and-centers/stanford-three-strikes-project/three-strikes-basics [Accessed: 10 Jul 2013].
Staples, B. (2012). California Horror Stories and the 3-Strikes Law. The New York Times, November 24.