`Life' for Repeaters

FRUSTRATED by lack of headway in reducing crime and in reforming habitual offenders, officials in at least 23 states are trying a fairly new strategy: putting the repeat offender, after a third major offense, away for life without parole.

It's being called the ``three strikes, you're out'' law. In most states that have embraced the concept or are studying it, that means an offender who is convicted for a third major crime will never live outside prison bars again. Putting it another way, it's ``three strikes and you're in.''

President Clinton has sent to Congress a federal version of ``three strikes, you're out,'' and the House and Senate are looking at it.

California Gov. Pete Wilson, who is running for a new, four-year term, signed a modified ``three strikes'' law on March 6. He said the stiff new law would end ``revolving justice.'' The state's law deviates from most ``three strikes'' models; if someone has a record of two felony convictions and is convicted for a third felony, and if two of the convictions are for violent crimes, he or she receives a mandatory life sentence. Parole is possible after serving 25 years of the life term.

Although many people are ready to test the effectiveness of the three-strikes concept, others, including us, remain skeptical about its usefulness.

By some estimates, housing for permanent inmates is expected to cost $21 billion over 20 years, including $2.8 billion for additional staff. Moreover, the growing number of ``lifers'' likely will place demands on states to provide additional and costly services, particularly for health care.

US Attorney General Janet Reno has suggested that sentences for ``lifers'' should be lifted when they reach an age at which they pose no threat, but could be best housed in less-costly facilities. But what is the appropriate age level? The move to put three-timers away for life implies that they can't be trusted at any age.

Beyond economic considerations, the strictest versions of the three-strikes concept ignore the importance of rehabilitation, even for repeat offenders. Redemption can come at any time in human experience; its eventuality must be accommodated.

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