Three Strikes Law

Three Strikes Law     One, two, three strikes your out is a famous baseball saying, but today it is recognized for a totally different reason.  Legislature adopted part of the phrase as law:  The Three Strikes Law.  Washington state passed the first “three strikes” law in l993 which mandates extended periods of imprisonment for people convicted of a felony on three separate occasions, with no chance for parole. Forty states have since past similar versions, with California passing the strictest Three Strikes Law, in l994. Former secretary of State Bill Jones co-authored the legislation describes the policy, more that a decade later as, “the most effective criminal justice initiative in the history of California,” (Bailey, C., 2005)  However, this law has been one of the most controversial, debated and scrutinized policies of California’s criminal justice system. It has been trampled with social issues, racism concerns, and proposed violation of civil rights amendments.   This research paper will examine these issues, along with the impact of the law on society and it’s effectiveness in deterring crime. Washington renamed there three strikes law as I-593, which covers more than forty felonies labeled, “the most dangerous offences.”  Statistics show that since its inception there have been fewer life sentences than expected, lower-level offenders, like non-violent robbers, have been most influence by I-593 and that the law had a “trickle-down,” affect that increased sentences for some crimes not included in the measure.  The largest “proportion of imprisoned three strikers are not murderer or rapists - but 2nd degree robbers.”  For example is a case in March 2000, when a man told the taxi driver he only had a $100 bill and asked him to wait while he changed it at a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC).  The man went in and of KFC, and paid the driver.  The twist was he had robbed the KFC of about $100, thanking the cashier on his way out. He was sentenced to life in prison in September 2002, because he had two priors. Ida Leggett, director of the Sentencing Guidelines Commission said these less serious three strike cases prompted complaints to her office that the law “sweeps too broadly.”  “A person who gets life without the possibility of parole should at least be involved with some serious, dangerous harmful acclivity,” she continued. Another surprise of I-593 was its lack of effectiveness compared to initial estimates.  Before the law was passed it was estimated that at least eighty offenders would get life sentences in the first year alone.  David LaCourse of the Washington Institute for Policy Studies, who drafted the legislation, projected 40-75 offenders would receive life each year. The estimations were “off the mark,” with 36 offenders sentenced to life in l995, dropping to 17, in 2004.  The belief is not that I-593 wasn’t a deterrent, but offenders plead guilty to lesser offences not covered under the law. Prosecutors claim plea bargains help make I-593 fair, and address some of the concerns with a “one-size-all sentence.” The Three Strikes law had another concern in Washington that of racial disparity, African Americans count for more than 3% of the state’s population, and almost 40% of those are serving life on I-593.  John Carlson, a radio talk show host says he hears this criticism often, and doesn’t agree.  He states the, three strikes doesn’t target race, it targets conduct,” (O’Hagan, M., 204). California’s Three Strikes Law, from it’s onset to present day, still generates debates, controversy and is the subject of countless studies.  Under California law, a person convicted of three felonies is given a mandatory 25-to-life sentence.  A felony is considered any crime punishable by one year or more in prison.  Unlike Washington, the California law counts non-violent felonies, such as burglary and theft as “strike” offences. By 2001, over 50,000 criminals had been sentenced under the three strike law more than any other state with one-quarter of the inmates facing a minimum of twenty-five years in prison. The Three-Strike law provides a solution for a “flawed justice system,” so that repeat offenders remain behind bars.  Many criminals have slipped through the cracks and most crimes are committed by repeat offenders.  The law is an effective deterrent to crime, when then offender knows they will “definitely go to jail for at least twenty-five years if convicted again.”  The media distorts the effectiveness by highlighting trivial cases rather than the usual offenders.  They’re reporting does not reflect the reality of repeat offender data. “An objective media portrayal would show three victims of the     4   Three-strike criminal and the impact on them.  It is a major judicial coo to get just one conviction, so when the three strikes law is applied; it is often applied to a criminal who has committed far more than three crimes.” A few of the objections to this law is the “system of judgment destroys flexibility.”  How cases like stealing videos or pizza are unjustly subjected to the law, but it must be reiterated that their first two crimes must have been more serious crimes. Another facet debated is the higher cost of trials for the state with the significant number of plea bargains causing a “backlog.”   One of the major cons of this law was that it violated the 8th Amendment to the Constitution that prohibits the use of “cruel or unjust punishment.” On March 5, 2005, the United States Supreme Court ruled the law did not violate the constitution (Messerlil, J., 2006). Martin Kasindorf of USA Today magazine stated in his article, “Three-Strikes laws fall out of favor,” that only California makes much use of it’s Three-Strikes law, the being the nations toughest.”  California Secretary of State, Bill Johns who co-drafted the legislation, credits it with reducing crime more than 40%.  The states push for a three-strike ballot initiative was heralded by Johns and Mike Reynolds, a Fresno photographer whose eighteen year old daughter, Kimberly, was murdered in l992 by a parolee.  Also, the l993 kidnap-murder in Petaluma, of twelve year old Polly Klaas by Richard Allen Davis, a repeat violent criminal defined the need for the bill even further. California     5   currently has 7,072 offenders serving twenty-five years to life on three strikes convictions, the most of any other state.  Except for California all other states with a three-strike law, require convictions for three violent or serious felonies before the sentence for a third crime is added.  A third strike in California can be any felony, even one as small as shoplifting.  This was amended at the civil rights hearing, stating that if the third strike is petty theft it violates the 8th Amendment (Kasindorf, M., 2002). California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke during a victim’s march on April 23, 2007 and stated how people have tried to “weaken three strikes, to water it down, to soften it.”   He sternly replied that it was never going to happen, it would never be softened, “not on his watch.”  The Governor is consistently defending this law, renowned as the most severe version in the country. Is the three-strike law working in the true stratum Governor Schwarzenegger originally intended?  One of the concerns was that prison population would rise at an outrages rate requiring exuberant funding at the expense of “education for our children.” Neither of these predictions came true.  Yes, the prison population increased but not by the alarming rate anticipated.  Ina study by the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, the rate rose from “114 persons per 100,000 populations in state prisons before the “Victims Bill of Rights,” to 231, then three years following the three-strike law in l97, the rate went to 475.”  The number of California victims dropped from 4,777 per 100,000 in l982     6   to 2381 in l997. During the same period education funds “did not shrink as predicted, but grew.” To reiterate the overcrowding of prisons further, Mike Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times that 9 out of 10 repeat offenders eligible for three-strike end up getting it reduced to a second strike avoiding the 25-to-life-term. “Fewer than 250 third strike convictions a year are taking place. With a general prison population of 170,000 you can see that three strikes are not over populating the system.” California has only 5% of total inmate population increased by three-strikes, serving more than twenty year terms.  The lowest in the nation (Reynolds, M., 2007). What did influence the prison count was that initially California gave judges no discretion in setting prisons terms for three-strikes. However, in l996, the California Supreme Court ruled that judges could ignore prior convictions in deciding when an offender qualified for a three-strike sentence.  Prosecutors have the greatest discretion; they can decide whether to count certain crimes as strikes when filing their criminal complaint. Critics have voiced their opinion saying that this system “introduces the worst of both worlds: mandatory sentences for those charged under the law and unequal application of the law.” Supporters have argued that the decline in California’s crime rates in the l990’s, was a direct result of this tough new three-strike sentencing.  They fervently believe on California statistics that cite the fact that approximately 1200   7     offenders, per year, are sentenced under the three-strike law. They deem the law a success with these offenders off the streets for at least twenty-five years. What are some of the statistics in the other states that carry a version of? the three-strike law?  A study, in l998, by the Rand Institute revealed two standard outcomes. In the majority of states, little had changed.  Washington had convicted sixty-six people under the three-strikes law, Arkansas had twelve and Alaska, Connecticut, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont and New Jersey had no more than six.  Wisconsin invoked the law once, and no one in the remaining states has every prosecuted a three-strike offence. Obviously, the results were extremely different in California, but also in Georgia. Georgia had sent approximately 1000 defenders to prison under the three-strike law.  The study also suggested the law has been enforced more often against minority offenders than against white offenders.  In California 1,237 of more than 4,800 defendants sentenced were white; 2,138 were African American, 1,262 were Latino and 201 were classified as “other.”  Statistics showed more than twice as many defendants were for the Three-strike offence was for drug possession or petty theft as for murder, rape or kidnapping.  The racial issue is basically unlikely, each individual regardless of gender or race, had a trial, appeals and two priors before convicted as a three striker (thefreedictionary.com.,n.d.).   8   To completely satisfy the racial question, here are statistics from the l999 Corrections Yearbook showing the “Gender and Ethnic Composition of Inmate Populations throughout the United States.  These percentages include those convicted for third offences as well as any other offences:   Total/Average:        1,310,636 Male:                            93.5% Female:                           6.5% Black:                           47.4% White:                           40.3% Asian                               0.6% Native American             1.2% Other                             10.6% Hispanic                          1.0%   Joe Domanick author of Cruel Justice: Three Strikes and the Politics of Crime in American’s Golden State documents the decade long chronicle of the Three-Strike law.  He explains in explicit detail how the three-strike law was “born in a climate of extreme fear,” after the two horrific murders of Kimbery Reynolds and Polly Klaas.  Domanick believes that justice has not been served by this legislature that ultimately many criminals given twenty-five to life were for inconsequential petty theft crimes with prior convictions of drug possession.  He claims that 50% of these prisoners had committed third strikes that were non-serious and non-violent.  Cruel Justice depicts a dismal picture of the criminal justice system in California, which Governor Schwarzenegger is so proud of, showing his readers a political view of the law (Domanick, J., 2005).  This is an angle not readily explored.  There are coalitions, non-profit groups, politicians and lobbyist 9   keeping close watch over the three-strikes law across the country.  Each group has its own agenda, ideas for reform and advisors.  Since the three-strike law has been in effect several bills have been put to the vote, especially in California.   One of the most recent proposals were the “Three Strikes Reform Act of 2006.”   Its initiative would “weaken the most successful public safety tool we have in California, eliminating the discretion that is currently granted to elected district attorneys and judges and potentially releasing thousands of repeat criminals back into our communities, states Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley.  He claims that other elected district attorneys and judges have abused their discretion in sentencing defending under the current law. Mr. Cooley’s reform act is going no where soon, he “stands alone among the state’s prosecutors in support of his initiative” (solanocounty.com.2006) In an article from the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin by John Schafer titled, The Deterrent Effect of Three-Strikes Law it is noted that the “concept of deterrence,” can be split into two sections: General deterrence when an offender sees the consequences of other people’s actions and decides not to act in the same manner; and the “specific deterrence,” which is when the offender acknowledges the consequences of their “own past behavior,” and decides not to repeat them. Based on these behavioral theories, laws such as the three-strike one, deters offenders by the punishment or the threat of the punishment.     10   Since California enacted the law, crime dropped: 26.0% which translates to 815,000 few crimes.”  The three-strikes law isn’t exclusively responsible for the decrease, but in a majority of the cases it proved “an essential missing piece of the crime control puzzle” (Schafer.J., l999) Governor Schwarzenegger, during his speech noted earlier, said “I am a big believer in the three strikes, to keep the worst of the worst where they belong, which is locked up behind bars forever.”  His administration has concentrated on this mission since the beginning with extensive changes in legislature, victims’ rights and propositions to alleviate overcrowded prisons.  This paper has focused on California’s three-strike law because it is the most contentious, toughest and successful of any state.  The media’s golden opportunity whether it is a debate, wrongful accusation or economic issue. In conclusion. I will briefly restate the key objections and responses to California’s three strike law: 1st Objection:     It locks up petty thieves. Response:    It is true a three strike does not have to be violent; it is also true                            that the 1st and 2nd strikes have to be serious or violent.   2nd Objection:     Three strikes are overcrowding California prisons. Response:      Projected need for twenty new prisons within five years and that prison population would double to 245,000 inmates never came into fruition.  Actual   11   population remained approximately 160,000 inmates.  It is going down because less crimes mean fewer criminals.   3rd Objection:     Three Strikes is applied to minorities more than the population as a whole. Response:      True for entire criminal justice system, not just Three-Strike cases.  Victims of violent crimes are more often from minority communities.  In California one out of every eighteen citizens is black, and one out of every four murder victims are also black. 4th Objection:     What about prevention and intervention? Response:     Other laws, which have numerous loopholes for criminals, the words “three strikes” have meaning and consequence t repeat offenders.  Because this is one law that means what it says.  This has an enormous deterrent effect.  If this law deters a criminal from committing a crime, that is prevention. 5th Objection:     How is it justified to credit the California Three Strikes law for the drop in crime throughout the United States? Response:      One factor is that California has a population of over 30 million people, that’s twice the population of the next largest state.  When California’s crime drops at twice the national rate, and it has, it literally brings down the national rate a well.     12   The Three-Strike law has proven to be effective in deterring crime in all states that have it, especially in California. No issue is without its “proponents and opponents.” Any legislature that results in a lower crime rate, and reduced prison population can’t be a bad thing.  Be assured Governor Schwarzenegger will maintain his efforts for reform to intensify the benefits of the Three-Strike law.  Other states will follow suit, if results in California continue to be positive and economically sound. Crime is, unfortunately here to stay, it is part of society.  Any legislature or policy that deters it, and drops the crime rate, by any percentage is constructive.    Provided statistics by Rand Institute and similar organizations, has shown the three-strikes law made its mark on crime.                       References     Bailey, Chauncy (2005, January) Three Strikes Law Hits People of Color Hardest   Crisis Publishing Company. Domanick, Joe, (2005, August) Cruel Justice: Three Strikes and the Politics of Crime in America’s Golden State, University of California Press Kasindorf, Martin, (2002, February 27), Three-Strikes laws fall out of favor USA Today Messerli, J. (2006, Ocober 15), Is the Three-Strikes law, which provides mandatory 25 to           life sentences for a 3rd felony conviction a good idea?  Balanced Politics, retrieved on November 5, 2008 from http://www.balancedpolitics.org/three_strikes.htm O’Hagan, Maureen, (2004, August 17), Three strikes life terms fewer than expected. Seattle Times Reynolds, M., (2007, August 9) How many strikes and your out? Los Angeles Times solanocounty.com (2006) What does the District Attorney think about the three strikes law? Solano County retrieved on  November 4, 2008 from             http://www.solanocounty.com/depts/da/criminaljustice/3strikes.asp Schafer, John, (1999, April), The Deterrent Effect of Three Strikes Law, the FBI Enforcement Bulletin. thefreedictionary.com, (n.d.) Three Strikes Laws: legal definition, Legal Dictionary, retrieved on November 4, 2008 from http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/