`Three Strikes' Laws Strike Out With Law Enforcement Experts

WHETHER their political stance is left, right, or middle, prominent politicians are lining up behind ``three strikes, you're out'' proposals to lock up for life criminals who have committed three violent felonies.

President Clinton came out strongly for the idea in his State of the Union message last week. Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) of New York, often seen as a darling of liberal Democrats, has backed a version of ``three strikes'' for his state, as has Gov. Pete Wilson of California, a moderate to conservative Republican. Bills to institute the policy are before 30 state legislatures, and a federal bill has already been passed by the Senate and is likely to end up part of the finished crime bill this year. (Political momentum, Page 2.)

But the nearly unanimous support in the political realm is not mirrored among people who study and work within the criminal justice and penal systems in the United States. Many of them tend to see ``three strikes you're out'' as potent politics but a whiff when it comes to battling crime.

``Obviously, there's political hay to be made,'' says James Fox, dean of the college of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston. He says he ``fully supports'' putting violent and dangerous people behind bars, but asks, ``Is automatic life the right approach,'' particularly ``as a rigid mathematical formula?''

``Punishment should be made to fit not only the crime, but the criminal,'' adds Mr. Fox. ``Three strikes,'' he says, is another step toward depriving judges and parole boards of any discretion in assessing the danger an individual poses to society and setting penalties accordingly.

A person may commit two relatively minor crimes - perhaps shoving someone in the course of a robbery or fighting in a bar - that are still considered ``violent felonies'' under the definition of many ``three strikes'' proposals. His third offense may be more severe, but it will land him in the same boat as a felon with three major crimes to his record. ``There are no `foul tips,' in other words. That's a problem,'' says Fox.

The ``three strikes'' approach makes good sense if it is seen as part of a larger reform effort aimed at addressing ``lack of accountability'' in the criminal justice system, says Paul McNulty, executive director of the First Freedom Coalition, a Washington-based research group. Mr. McNulty says the policy is one step toward ensuring that repeat offenders serve significant sentences.

It's a problem that the framers of the federal ``three strikes'' law were aware of, says Bruce Lott, an aide to (but no relation of) Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, a prime sponsor of the measure. The list of offenses that would trigger the federal law was gauged to avoid getting people who, for example, have been convicted for a barroom brawl, Bruce Lott says.

Some of the state laws, however, such as the ``three strikes'' measure recently passed by voters in Washington State last November, corral a wide range of offenses, including some that are only marginally violent.

Nkechi Taifa, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, says the possibility of punishment disproportionate to the crime makes the ``three strikes'' approach ``constitutionally suspect.''

Mr. Lott's reply to that concern epitomizes the commitment of those who back the laws: ``The way we look at it, the rights of the innocent people being maimed and murdered'' are of far greater concern than ``the rights of the 6 percent of criminals committing 70 percent of the violent crimes.''

Ms. Taifa also argues that these proposals overlap laws and regulations already on the books. ``There are already existing federal sentencing guidelines for repeat offenders, and they are not lenient,'' Taifa says.

Others note that most states, too, currently have laws that increase the sentences of habitual criminals.

Taifa anticipates that this latest foray into tougher sentencing will come down hardest on poor minority communities. That's where the bulk of the nation's law enforcement manpower is concentrated, she says.

Jerome Miller, head of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Washington, says ``three strikes'' laws will only greatly increase the numbers of young black men entering prison, a group that already makes up 56 percent of new inmates.

``Three strikes'' law could even have the reverse effect of increasing the numbers of murders, according to William Chambliss, a professor of sociology at George Washington University.

``If someone is facing a mandatory life sentence for a third crime,'' he says, ``they won't leave any witnesses.'' On the other hand, says Mr. Chambliss, psychotic individuals about to commit heinous crimes won't be deterred by the threat of tougher sentences.

With these laws, Taifa sees prisons burdened with the ``maintenance of low-risk, geriatric inmates'' down the line.

Fox agrees and also anticipates that courtrooms will be affected too. Offenders facing a third offense will fight harder for acquittal and avoid plea bargains, he predicts. ``These cases will be tried to the hilt.''

McNulty counters that any added burden on prisons - or any added cost for new prison space - is ``much less than the cost of violent crimes.'' In his view, ``three strikes'' will help keep habitual criminals off the streets and reduce their toll on society.

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