`Three Strikes' Law Gaining in Popularity

Washington State was the first; 12 states followed

IS ``three strikes, you're out'' deterring crime the way the public expects?

In Washington State, with the nation's first lock-'em-up-for-life policy toward three-time violent criminals, the answer depends on whom you talk to.

Dave LaCourse, who led the campaign to enact the law through a ballot initiative last fall, says the law is working exactly as planned.

He says that after nine months under the new law, 33 people have been charged with crimes that would be their third strike, and six of these are already convicted. These numbers are below what some experts had projected.

``I think the lower numbers are definitely due to deterrence,'' says Mr. LaCourse, head of Washington Citizens for Justice.

Others say early statistics and anecdotes about criminals leaving the state don't prove the law is reducing crime. They add that the law may too often be used to lock up the wrong people, such as a small-time robber who held up a sandwich shop using his finger to simulate a gun in his pocket.

``One questions whether this was really who was being targeted,'' says Larry Fehr, who heads the Washington Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit group aiming to reduce crime and improve the state's criminal-justice system. He says the law will create a class of geriatric prisoners who cost the state almost three times more than the average inmate.

James Fox, a criminologist at Boston's Northeastern University, says judges should have discretion to sentence according to the quality of the crime, not just the quantity.

LaCourse makes no apologies: ``The message that needs to be sent is `Don't hurt people, don't threaten people.''' Arguments that housing elderly offenders is needless ``should be inoperable now'' that a 61-year-old has been convicted on a third-strike charge of child molestation. As for judges, the advocacy group is starting to track their performance on issues where they do have discretion, so voters will have toughness ratings to go by.

Despite crime experts' doubts, politicians seem to like the simple baseball analogy and the finality of the sentence. LaCourse says about a dozen state legislatures from Georgia to California have passed their own versions of ``three strikes'' since Washington voters approved the measure last November by a resounding 3-to-1 margin. The provision is also in the recently signed federal crime package (this will have only a small impact since most criminals are tried under state, not federal, codes).

All this comes even as crime rates show a slight decline.

Experts, however, point to several justifications for public concern: On average violent criminals serve only 37 percent of their sentences. Despite mandatory-sentencing laws and a tripling of prison populations since 1980, actual time served has fallen. Some studies suggest that hard-core criminals avoid arrest for 12 of every 13 crimes they commit. Violence by youths is rising.

John DiIulio, a Princeton University crime expert, suggests laws mandating ``two strikes and you're in'' prison for a definite period of time. This could keep violent offenders off the streets for 15 years or so. He says this contrasts with ``three strikes,'' which will target older criminals that are already ``exiting from their most crime-prone years.''

Similarly, Fox says states can ban parole for violent crimes.

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