'Three Strikes' Whiffs

FEW criminal-justice reforms have been as popular as ''three strikes, you're out'' laws, which impose a life sentence on criminals convicted of three felonies. Thirteen states have such laws, with seven others poised to enact them. The federal government has its version too.

That kind of momentum isn't easily slowed, but the experience of California, which has had a three-strikes law for a year now, should encourage some second thoughts. The state faces a burgeoning backlog of cases in its criminal courts caused by the unwillingness of those accused of a felony to admit guilt and plea bargain for fear of adding to their ''strikes.''

Meanwhile, a number of California communities are finding they have to put civil suits on indefinite hold as judges who normally hear such cases are drafted onto the criminal bench to deal with the three-strikes overflow.

Ironically, this situation shows that the law certainly has influenced the criminals it was aimed at. But will it keep people from committing new crimes, or just put a new wrinkle in the system for individuals whose lives are enmeshed with crime and prison?

Criminal-justice experts warned of the likely consequences of three-strikes laws, including clogged courts. There was also the prospect of three-strikes convicts reaching old age in prison and inflating the cost of incarceration. Another criticism was the breadth of offenses covered by some three-strikes laws, raising the possibility of people getting life sentences for relatively minor crimes.

None of these concerns had much impact on legislators intent on getting tough with criminals, or on their constituents, who are rightly determined to see something done about crime. And it's not likely that negative consequences now surfacing in California, Washington, and other states with three-strikes laws will quickly lead to a counterreform.

When that counterreform comes it will probably be impelled by fiscal concerns. Rising court and prison costs will force lawmakers to think of how that money could be more effectively spent -- on added police officers, for instance, or programs to rehabilitate criminals.

The repeat offender, meanwhile, can be taken care of by laws already on the books in most states before the ''three strikes'' fad came in -- laws that allow judges and juries to impose much tougher penalties on those who habitually prey on society.

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