Three-Strikes Laws Punish and Protect
Meese, Edwin, Insight on the News
On Oct. 1, 1993, Polly Klaas was kidnapped at knife point from her Petaluma, Calif., home, where she had been enjoying a sleep-over with two teenage girlfriends. Subsequently she was found dead on a road about 45 miles from her house -- strangled. The man identified in court documents as the killer had been convicted repeatedly of the most serious and dangerous crimes, including kidnapping, robbery, burglary and assault. Yet he was released from prison a few months before Polly's murder, serving only half of the 16-year sentence for his most recent felony.
More than a year earlier, Kimber Reynolds, an 18-year-old girl living in Fresno, Calif., was shot to death by a career criminal on parole, who killed her because she resisted his effort to steal her purse.
The nation was stunned in July 1993 by the fatal shooting of James Jordan, known as "Pops" to his basketball-star son, Michael Jordan. The elder Jordan's death occurred at a rest stop on Interstate 95 in North Carolina, at the hands of two men with long criminal histories of violent crimes.
These incidents that spanned the country, and hundreds of others taking place in the states in between, have triggered a massive reaction among law-abiding citizens. People are expressing their urgent fears about violent crime and demanding that new measures be taken to change the criminal justice system -- particularly to protect against violent, repeat offenders who are being released into the community often after serving only a fraction of their sentences for previous crimes.
One of the measures most frequently proposed -- perhaps because of its catchy title -- is "three strikes and you're out," requiring that criminals involved in three serious, violent felonies be sentenced to prison for guaranteed terms up to life imprisonment. The details of these proposals vary, but the essential concept is the same: Violent career criminals who have demonstrated their proclivity for repeated offenses should remain in prison for life or at least until the public can be absolutely assured that they no longer are a danger to society.
Despite extensive public approval -- nearly 77 percent of Washington state voters launched a national movement for three-strikes laws by approving such a ballot initiative in October -- a vigorous debate has been kindled among politicians, academics and criminal justice experts over the efficiency of such legislation. Dire warnings of overwhelming costs, potential "geriatric prisons" and misuse of limited resources are among the challenges posed by three-strikes opponents.
After a careful review of the arguments on both sides, I believe that laws providing guaranteed lengthy prison terms for violent career criminals, if properly written and applied, would materially increase public safety and improve our citizens' confidence in the criminal justice system.
First, however, let me suggest a few conditions that should govern such measures:
* A "three strikes and you're out" statute is not a panacea and will not solve all the problems that face our law enforcement and criminal justice institutions. This type of measure does not substitute for expanded and better-utilized police resources, reform of the juvenile justice system, better management of prisons, revision of criminal evidence laws or common-sense attention to the root causes of crime.
* Those drafting three strikes legislation should remember the purpose of the concept: to keep repeat violent criminals out of circulation until they no longer are a danger to society. Therefore, it should apply to three violent offenses only (with the inclusion of home burglaries at night, since the crimes have such a high potential of violence), and not to just any three felonies.
* Since many violent criminals "burn out" in middle or advanced age, the term for three-time violent offenders should be near 25 years to life, with provisions for release of those who have served 25 or more years if correctional officials certify they no longer are dangerous. …