Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Questions Surface over Fairness, Cost of 3-Strikes Laws

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Questions Surface over Fairness, Cost of 3-Strikes Laws

Article excerpt

THREE cheers for three strikes.

That's the refrain being echoed by voters in California, Oregon, and Georgia after recent ballot initiatives aimed at locking up career criminals won overwhelming support.

Impressed by such measures' proven record of reducing crime, state lawmakers are sprinting to catch the "three strikes and you're out" bandwagon - or in Georgia's case, two strikes. Yet critics are stepping up complaints that the laws are packing jailhouses and trampling on the rights of some defendants.

Polls show that 74 percent of Americans favor mandatory life sentences for three-time violent felons, and lawmakers have taken notice. Eleven state legislatures have passed such measures in the last year, while at least 12 others have bills pending.

Soon, predicts Donna Hunzeker of the National Conference of State Legislatures, nearly every state will have some form of law aimed at "habitual offenders."

In a report issued last month, the American Legislative Exchange Council added three strikes to its list of recomendations for reducing crime. Steve Twist, a senior fellow at the group, says that in states like Arizona, where a habitual-offender law has been enforced since 1975, crime rates have declined. Three strikes is worth the cost of extra prisons, Mr. Twist says, "because it works."

But critics - including civil libertarians, defense attorneys, and scholars - contend that mandatory-sentencing laws like three strikes change the dynamics of the criminal-justice system and mete out justice unevenly.

"Discretion in the courtroom has shifted from the judge to the prosecutor," says Beth Carter of the Campaign for an Effective Crime Policy in Washington. "The judge's hands are tied."

Ms. Carter contends that three-strikes laws allow prosecutors great leeway in deciding whether to prosecute a suspect for a third strike - a qualifying felony - or reducing the charge to avoid the mandatory life-imprisonment sanction. …

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