10 REASONS TO OPPOSE +quot;3 STRIKES, YOU'RE OUT+quot; An American Civil Liberties Union B
10 REASONS TO OPPOSE "3 STRIKES, YOU'RE OUT"
An American Civil Liberties Union BRIEFER
The American public is alarmed about crime, and with good reason. Our
crime rate is unacceptably high, and many Americans feel like prisoners in
their own homes, afraid to venture out for fear of becoming another
For more than past 20 years, state and federal crime control policies have
been based on the belief that harsh sentencing laws will deter
people from committing crimes. But today, with more than one
million people behind bars, and state budgets depleted by the huge
costs of prison construction, we are no safer than before. New
approaches to the problem of crime are needed, but instead, our
political leaders keep serving up the same old strategies.
Take the so-called "3 Strikes, You're Out" law, for example. Embraced by
state legislators, Congress and the President himself, this law imposes a
mandatory life sentence without parole on offenders convicted of certain
crimes. Despite its catchy baseball metaphor, this law is a loser, for
the following reasons.
1. "3 Strikes" Is An Old Law Dressed Up In New Clothes
Although its supporters act as if it is something new, "3 Strikes" is
really just a variation on an old theme. States have had habitual
offender laws and recidivist statutes for years. All of these laws impose
stiff penalties, up to and including life s entences, on repeat offenders.
The 1987 Federal Sentencing Guidelines and mandatory minimum sentencing
laws in most states are also very tough on repeaters. The government may
be justified in punishing a repeat offender more severely than a first
offender, but "3 Strikes" laws are overkill.
2. "3 Strikes" Laws Won't Deter Most Violent Crimes
Its supporters claim that "3 Strikes" laws will have a deterrent effect on
violent crime. But these laws will probably not stop many criminals from
committing violent acts. For one thing, most violent crimes are not
premeditated. They are committed in anger, in the heat of passion or
under the influence of alcohol. The prospect of a life s entence is not
going to stop people who are acting impulsively, without thought to the
likely consequences of their actions.
Another reason why repeat offenders do not consider the penalties
they face before acting is because they do not anticipate being c aught,
and they are right. According to the American Bar Association, out of the
approximately 34 million serious crimes committed each year in the U.S.,
only 3 million result in arrests.
3. "3 Strikes" Laws Could Lead To An Increase In Violence
Many law enforcement professionals oppose the "3 Strikes" law out of fear
such laws would spur a dramatic increase in violence against police,
corrections officers and the public. A criminal facing the prospect of a
mandatory life sentence will be far more likely to resist arrest, to kill
witnesses or to attempt a prison escape. Dave Paul, a corrections officer
from Milwaukee, Oregon, wrote in a newspaper article: "Imagine a law
enforcement officer trying to arrest a twice-convicted felon who has
nothing to lose by using any means necessary to escape. Expect assaults
on police and correctional officers to rise precipitously." (Portland
Oregonian, 3/94). Ironically, these laws may cause more, not less, loss
4. "3 Strikes" Laws Will Clog The Courts
The criminal courts already suffer from serious backlogs. The
extraordinarily high arrest rates resulting from the "war on drugs" have
placed enormous burdens on prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges, whose
caseloads have grown exponentially over the past decade. "Three strikes"
laws will make a bad situation even worse. Faced with a mandatory life
sentence, repeat offenders will demand costly and time-consuming trials
rather than submit to plea bargaining. Normal felonies resolved by a plea
bargain cost $600 to defend, while a full blown criminal trial costs as
much as $50,000. Since most of the defendants will be indigent and
require public defenders, the expense of their defense will be borne by
5. "3 Strikes" Laws Will Take All Sentencing Discretion Away From Judges
The "3 Strikes" proposals differ from most habitual offender laws in that
they make life sentences without parole mandatory. Thus, they tie the
hands of judges who have traditionally been responsible for weighing both
mitigating and aggravating circumstances before imposing sentence.
Judicial discretion in sentencing, which is admired all over the world for
treating people as individuals, is one of the hallmarks of our justice
system. But the rigid formula imposed by "3 Strikes" renders the role
of sentencing judges almost superfluous.
Eliminating the possibility of parole ignores the fact that even
the most incorrigible offenders can be transformed while in prison.
Countless examples are on record of convicts who have reformed themselves
through study, good works, religious conversion or other efforts during
years spent behind bars. Such people ought deserve a second chance that
"3 Strikes" laws make impossible.
6. The Cost of Imprisoning 3-Time Losers For Life Will Be Prohibitively
The passage of "3 Strikes" laws will lead to a significant increase in the
nation's already swollen prison population, at enormous cost to taxpayers.
Today, it costs about $20,000 per year to confine a young, physically fit
offender. But "3 Strikes" laws would create a huge, geriatric prison
population that would be far more expensive to care for. The estimated
cost of maintaining an older prisoner is three times that required for a
younger prisoner -- about $60,000 per year.
The cost might be worth it if older prisoners represented a danger
to society. But experts tell us that age is the most powerful crime
reducer. Most crimes are committed by men between the ages of 15 and 24.
Only one percent of all serious crimes are committed by people over age
7. "3 Strikes" Will Have a Disproportionate Impact On Minority Offenders
Racial bias in the criminal justice system is rampant. African American
men, in particular, are overrepresented in all criminal justice
statistics: arrests, victimizations, incarceration and executions.
This imbalance is largely the result of the "war on drugs."
Although studies show that drug use among blacks and whites is comparable,
many more blacks than whites are arrested on drug charges. Why? because
the police find it easier to concentrate their forces in inner city
neighborhoods, where drug dealing tends to take place on the streets, than
to mount more costly and demanding investigations in the suburbs, where
drug dealing generally occurs behind closed doors. Today, one in four
young black men is are under some form of criminal sanction, be it
incarceration, probation or parole.
Because many of these laws include drug offenses as prior "strikes,"
more black than white offenders will be subject to life sentences
under a "3 Strikes" law.
8. "3 Strikes" Laws Will Impose Life Sentences on Offenders Whose Crimes
Don't Warrant Such Harsh Punishment
Although "3 Strikes" sponsors claim that their purpose is to protect
society from only the most dangerous felons, many of the "3 Strikes"
proposals encompass a broad range of criminal conduct, from rape to minor
assaults. In an open letter to the Washington State voters, more than 20
current and former prosecutors urged the public to vote against the "3
Strikes" proposal. To explain why they opposed the law's passage, they
described the following scenario:
"An 18-year old high school senior pushes a classmate down to steal his
Michael Jordan $150 sneakers -- Strike One; he gets out of jail and
shoplifts a jacket from the Bon Marche, pushing aside the clerk as he runs
out of the store -- Strik e Two; he gets out of jail, straightens out, and
nine years later gets in a fight in a bar and intentionally hits someone,
breaking his nose -- criminal behavior, to be sure, but hardly the crime
of the century, yet it is Strike Three. He is sent to prison for the rest
of his life."
9. Let the Punishment Fit the Crime -- A Constitutional Principle
Under our system of criminal justice, the punishment must fit the crime.
Individuals should not be executed for burglarizing a house nor
incarcerated for life for committing relatively minor offenses, even when
they commit several of them. This principle, known as "proportionality,"
is expressed in the Eighth Amendment to the Bill of Rights:
"Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed,
nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."
Many of the "3 Strikes" proposals depart sharply from the
proportionality rule by failing to take into consideration the gravity of
the offense. Pennsylvania's proposed law treats prostitution and burglary
as "strikes" for purposes of imposing a life s entence without parole.
Several California proposals provide that the first two felonies must be
"violent," but that the third offense can be any felony, even a
non-violent crime like petty theft. Such laws offend our constitutional
10. "3 Strikes" Laws Are Not A Serious Response To Crime
The "3 Strikes" proposals are based on the mistaken belief that focusing
on an offender after the crime has been committed, which harsh sentencing
schemes do, will lead to a reduction in the crime rate. But if 34 million
serious crimes are committed each year in the U.S., and only 3 million
result in arrest, something must be done to prevent those crimes from
happening in the first place.
Today, the U.S. has the dubious distinction of leading the
industrialized world in per capita prison population, with more than one
million men and women behind bars. The typical inmate in our prisons is
minority, male, young and uneducated. More than 40 percent of inmates are
illiterate; one-third were unemployed when arrested. This profile should
tell us something important about the link between crime and lack of
opportunity, between crime and lack of hope.
Only when we begin to deal with the conditions that cause so many
of our young people to turn to crime and violence will we begin to realize
a less crime ridden society.
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