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
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
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 federal law was gauged
to avoid getting people who, for example, have been convicted for
a barroom brawl, Bruce Lott says. …