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Habitual-offender laws result in unjustifiable sentences

We often write about the need for criminal justice reform. And one of the more pressing issues in need of reform is sentencing requirements for repeat offenders. Most states, including Wisconsin, allow for harsher sentencing of individuals convicted numerous times.

The laws go by many names, including habitual-offender laws, repeat-offender laws, three-strikes laws and even "career criminal" laws (typically an informal nickname). The principle underlying these laws is that people who continue to commit crimes after multiple convictions need increasingly harsh sentences in order to deter them from reoffending. But there are at least two major problems with habitual-offender laws. First and foremost, they are not very effective. Second, they can result in sentences that are vastly disproportionate to the crime committed.

A particularly strong example comes from Louisiana, which has one of the most draconian habitual-offender laws in the United States. Recently, a 34-year-old man was charged with shoplifting about $31 worth of candy from a Dollar General store. He has multiple prior convictions for petty theft (usually shoplifting). Because of the state's habitual-offender sentencing law, however, he now faces a possible sentence of 20 years to life in prison if convicted on this most recent charge.

He has already served time for shoplifting in the past. One of the man's previous convictions (in 2010) resulted in a four-year prison sentence. That was also charged under a habitual offender statute.

Such sentences are obviously problematic because they are so disproportionate to the seriousness of the offense. But they also make no sense from an economic perspective. It costs the state tens of thousands of dollars each year to keep inmates locked up. All thefts that this offender has been convicted of involved less than $500 worth of stolen merchandise - often a lot less.

This incredibly harsh habitual offender law helps explain why Louisiana's incarceration rate is among the highest in the world (not just in the United States). Wisconsin and other states may have softer habitual offender laws, but they are also ineffective and result in unfair sentences.

Unless these laws can be significantly reformed and applied only in the most appropriate cases, they should be eliminated altogether.

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