Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Changed My Mind: Three Strikes Laws

I've been challenged on a few occasions, as one tends to be if one is a fairly strong adherent of one end of the political spectrum or another, as to whether I've ever changed my mind on anything to a position contrary to the standard conservative one. And so, an example:

When a three strikes law was put on the ballot in California (where I lived at the time) I was a strong supporter. California was one of the first states to pass a three strikes law, and there was huge support for it because California was suffering badly from the 90s crime wave. The case for it seemed simple: If you've committed three felonies, you're clearly not learning your lesson, and 25-life will take you off the streets and prevent you from continuing to be a danger to society. Support for the bill was heavily fueled by frustration with a justice system which seemed to act far too much like a revolving door, with rapists and murderers often being back on the streets within 5-8 years, and proceeding to commit similar crimes again. With the judiciary and prison system seemingly unwilling to do their job in keeping criminals off the streets, the case seemed strong for citizens to pass legislation forcing them to, and the three strikes law seemed like an obvious way to do it.

However, it's not just in regards to economics and welfare that top down attempts at control end up doing stupid things in individual circumstances. The one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing soon ended up producing absurdities in which someone with an undeniably criminal background committed some fairly minor third offense which was nonetheless classified as a felony (in part due to Californians fed up with failure to enforce the law having made an awful lot of things felonies in past years) and landing himself in prison for 25-life. In 2000, 60% of California voters supported an initiative to stop sending people up for 25-life for felony possession of a controlled substance, sending them to drug treatment programs instead. But even so, while I continue to deeply sympathize with the motives behind supporting the three strikes law, it's continued enforcement does still result in unjust sentences being handed down on comparatively minor crimes.

While I think that laxity and mismanagement in the judicial and prison systems were much to blame for the sentiments that put Three Strikes in place, and I continue to think it's important for the justice system to enforce the law rather than operating a revolving door policy, I think that the Three Strikes law was, in the end, a bad choice, and I would support repealing it.

8 comments:

Cliff said...

Examples..............???

Darwin said...

I've read various news story examples over the years, most of them (pre 2000) having to do with people who got put away for 25+ years as a result of being found with a couple ounces of pot after having had two prior convictions. Possession of fairly small amounts of drugs is a felony in CA -- and while I certainly don't condone drug use, it's not surprising if addicts get caught with drugs multiple times and I'm not clear that locking them up for 25+ years is the solution.

A few other examples I found in quick search:

As a result, some defendants have been given sentences of 25 years to life in prison for such crimes as shoplifting golf clubs (Gary Ewing, previous strikes for burglary and robbery with a knife), nine videotapes (Leandro Andrade, received double sentence of 25 year-to-life for 2 counts of shoplifting), or, along with a violent assault, a slice of pepperoni pizza from a group of children (Jerry Dewayne Williams, four previous non-violent felonies, sentence later reduced to six years). In Rummel v. Estelle (1980), the Supreme Court upheld life with possible parole for a third-strike fraud felony in Texas, which arose from a refusal to repay $120.75 paid for air conditioning repair which was subsequently considered unsatisfactory.

Clearly, none of these guys are upstanding citizens, but I'm not sure that a 25-life sentence is appropriate. It's the bluntness of the tool I think was a serious mistake.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

I remember the pizza case making headlines while we were out in California. Another concern that I think those of you with economic interests will appreciate is the pressure for jury nullification when sentencing is popularly perceived as draconian.

j. christian said...

There's also the wild behavior one engages in to avoid being caught for that third strike. I don't know if there's any research to back up claims of increased violence to law enforcement personnel, but it's theoretically possible.

Cliff said...

Well, we should just legalize marijuana and that would help a lot.

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

Sounds like my reasoning against the "no cellphones while driving" law....

Just enforce the bloody distracted driving or hazardous driving laws, don't make new ones.

Dubitor said...

The problem with "three strikes" is that it punishes criminals for what they are (repeaters) rather than what they do (manslaughter, drug dealing, whatever).
It is the same as the old USSR declaring folks "anti-social elements" and sending them to the gulag.

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

Not especially convincing-- it could just as easily be argued that the pre-three strikes law is biased towards mercy, and applying three strikes means that the person has shown themselves to reject or abuse that mercy.