WHETHER their political stance is left, right, or middle, prominent politicians are lining up behind "three strikes, you're out" proposals to lock up for life criminals who have committed three violent felonies.
President Clinton came out strongly for the idea in his State of the Union message last week. Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) of New York, often seen as a darling of liberal Democrats, has backed a version of "three strikes" for his state, as has Gov. Pete Wilson of California, a moderate to conservative Republican. Bills to institute the policy are before 30 state legislatures, and a federal bill has already been passed by the Senate and is likely to end up part of the finished crime bill this year. (Political momentum, Page 2.)
But the nearly unanimous support in the political realm is not mirrored among people who study and work within the criminal justice and penal systems in the United States. Many of them tend to see "three strikes you're out" as potent politics but a whiff when it comes to battling crime.
"Obviously, there's political hay to be made," says James Fox, dean of the college of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston. He says he "fully supports" putting violent and dangerous people behind bars, but asks, "Is automatic life the right approach," particularly "as a rigid mathematical formula?"
"Punishment should be made to fit not only the crime, but the criminal," adds Mr. Fox. "Three strikes," he says, is another step toward depriving judges and parole boards of any discretion in assessing the danger an individual poses to society and setting penalties accordingly.
A person may commit two relatively minor crimes - perhaps shoving someone in the course of a robbery or fighting in a bar - that are still considered "violent felonies" under the definition of many "three strikes" proposals. His third offense may be more severe, but it will land him in the same boat as a felon with three major crimes to his record. "There are no `foul tips,' in other words. That's a problem," says Fox.
The "three strikes" approach makes good sense if it is seen as part of a larger reform effort aimed at addressing "lack of accountability" in the criminal justice system, says Paul McNulty, executive director of the First Freedom Coalition, a Washington-based research group. Mr. McNulty says the policy is one step toward ensuring that repeat offenders serve significant sentences.
It's a problem that the framers of the federal "three strikes" law were aware of, says Bruce Lott, an aide to (but no relation of) Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, a prime sponsor of the measure. The list of offenses that would trigger the …