The ubiquitous “strikes” sports analogy was long ago adopted by the criminal justice system. But many do not understand that two strikes can end a criminal’s at-bat and see him jailed only to be released in a pine box.
The Palmetto State has a two-strikes and a three-strikes law, both of which can see a true life sentence handed down to criminal offenders.
“Upon a conviction for a ‘most serious offense,’ a person must be sentenced to a term of life if that person has either one or more convictions for a ‘most serious offense,’ or two or more convictions for a ‘serious offense,’” explained 2nd Circuit Solicitor Strom Thurmond. “Upon a conviction for a ‘serious offense,’ a person must be sentenced to life, if that person has two or more prior convictions for a ‘serious offense’ or a ‘most serious offense.’”
“Most serious” and “serious” offenses are statutorily defined. Murder, criminal sexual conduct, burglary, first degree and armed robbery are “most serious” offenses. Burglary, second degree, embezzlement of public funds and drug trafficking are “serious,” to name a few.
Earlier this year, Carl Donte Johnson, 22, of Aiken, pleaded guilty to two counts of armed robbery and received a 14-year prison sentence.
Johnson now has one “most serious” strike against him. Another armed robbery or aggravated burglary could mean two strikes and out. However, a less-serious crime would not mean life.
Unlike in other states, repeat offenders cannot get a life sentence for a minor crime, even if they have a history of felonious conduct.
In California in 1997, $1 meant life for one man.
William Anderson stole a dollar in loose change from a parked car. He was arrested, convicted and sentenced under California’s voter-approved “three strikes and you’re out” law, according to court data. Anderson had two previous convictions, dating back 12 years, of daylight residential burglary. These accounted for his first two strikes, allowing his petty theft from the car to trigger the hammer blow – the third strike. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in state prison.
Another distinction from the blunt instrument of that and the other state’s three-strikes laws, is that the sentence is not automatic.
“It is in the discretion of the solicitor whether to serve notice seeking a life sentence in these cases,” Thurmond said. “In South Carolina, life is ‘pine box life’ without the possibility of parole.”
That certainty in sentencing is something many believe is sorely needed in South Carolina law.
Strike offenses are no-parole offenses and the defendant must serve at least 85 percent of his sentence before he is parole-eligible. However, defendants convicted of a crime that is not listed as violent – grand larceny, for example – must serve 25 percent of their sentence before they are parole-eligible.
“A source of frustration for all stakeholders – victims, prosecutors, defense lawyers, etc. – is that it is sometimes impossible to determine exactly how much time the defendant will serve at sentencing,” Thurmond said. “As it stands, a judge can sentence a defendant to 10 years imprisonment for a non-violent offense, and the defendant could be released in as few as 2.5 years, a source of outrage for some crime victims and the push behind the ‘truth in sentencing’ movement where the defendant does day-for-day the time that he receives.”
Whether the strike system works as a deterrent, Aiken County’s top prosecutor is skeptical.
“I suppose there is a class of criminal who chooses not to offend or re-offend because of the prospect of a life sentence if convicted,” Thurmond said. “In my experience, I really don’t think most criminals are that circumspect.
“Rather than a deterrent, a mandatory life sentence is sometimes proper punishment for someone who has established through the requisite two strike/three strike criminal record that it is simply too unsafe in an organized and civilized society for that person to walk among us.”