`Three Strikes': a Step Closer To Zero Tolerance of Crime

Critics should remember that criminals are not the victims

WHEN moving the recently enacted ``Three Strikes and You're Out'' bill through the legislative process, I concentrated on what I thought was the obvious need to keep repeat felony offenders in prison where they could not victimize others. But shortly after the bill was enacted, my office received a telephone call that put the need for ``Three Strikes'' in a different perspective.

The call was from a reporter who was interested in the section of the bill which deals with juvenile adjudications. Under the new law, convictions for serious or violent felonies by juveniles aged 16 and 17 can be used as ``strikes'' for the purpose of sentence enhancements on future convictions. Because not all juveniles receive a jury trial, the question has been raised as to whether or not it would be constitutional to use non-jury convictions for sentence enhancement. The reporter indicated that he was going to interview some high school students who already had received two felony convictions and were concerned that one more conviction would send them to prison for 25 years to life.

He asked if he would be correct in assuming that the students, if they did not have a jury trial on one of their convictions, might not need to worry that one more conviction would send them away for life. ``No,'' my staff told him, ``what you should tell them is that they should not commit another crime.''

That exchange is a microcosm of what should be the real debate over ``Three Strikes and You're Out.'' Other issues, such as cost, are just sleight of hand to obfuscate what is essentially a war of ideologies.

As a society, we have become more and more tolerant of crime and of criminals. This tolerance has grown partially from our own desensitization through greater exposure to violence.

It has also, to some extent, grown from the liberal view that society is to blame for creating criminals, which absolves the individual from primary responsibility.

Some critics of ``Three Strikes'' have said that we will be handing down dramatically longer sentences for ``minor'' crimes. But they overlook the fact that committing a crime is something a person makes a conscious decision to do. It is not something that happens to a person arbitrarily. ``Three Strikes'' does not victimize criminals, it punishes them for victimizing us.

One of my colleagues recently presented the Senate Judiciary Committee with a report computing the savings to the state if residential burglary were dropped from the list of crimes for which repeat felons would receive longer sentences. There are many monetary and safety reasons to leave residential burglary on the list, which is what the Legislature ultimately decided to do. But in the larger sense, dropping burglary would also have been a step back toward tolerance of crime.

Without question, some crimes horrify us more than others. But that does not mean some crimes are more tolerable than others. Critics have protested that ``Three Strikes'' is flawed in that it does not narrowly target violent crime. This law will indeed cast a broad net, but that is an intended provision. ``Three Strikes'' is an anti-crime law, not just an anti-violent crime law. It was our intent in enacting ``Three Strikes'' not only to keep dangerous repeat felons in prison (that is why the third strike can be any felony), but to begin moving toward zero tolerance of crime.

Many of my colleagues in the Legislature have endorsed this idea of zero tolerance for years when the issue was, for instance, water quality standards. They have argued for expensive cleanups of water systems in order to achieve standards which will lower the potential cancer risk to people. Yet they cannot make the same zero-tolerance commitment to tougher prison sentences when confronted with actual crime victims rather than statistical probabilities.

One must remember that enactment of this law has not created any new crimes or criminals. Nobody is subject to a prison sentence now who was not subject to a prison sentence before. The effect of this law, and the identical initiative that will appear on the November ballot, is to provide fewer and fewer of those relatively short periods of time when repeat felons are out of prison, commit one or more felonies, and go back to prison.

If the debate over ``Three Strikes''' must be reduced to money, remember that crime costs California billions each year. The Governor's Office of Planning and Research recently issued a report indicating that enacting ``Three Strikes'' will produce annual savings of $14.102 billion above the additional cost of incarceration by the year 2000. This savings will grow to $48.151 billion above the cost of incarceration by the year 2027. By enacting ``Three Strikes'' we not only protect the individual, but we help to restore California's economy and quality of life as well.

Those who fret over the cost of implementation must justify how society can afford to not protect itself from repeat felony offenders. Funding for schools, libraries, and parks is important and must be maintained. But just as important is the ability to visit these public resources safely. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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