The Three Strikes Should But Won't Strike Out

For the umpteenth time, the Justice Policy Institute, a San Francisco-based criminal reform advocacy group, has issued a report that flatly declares that three strikes laws do nothing to reduce violent crime. And for the umpteenth time defenders of three strikes counter that California's law, which has become the model for similar laws in more than two dozen states, has reduced crime and made the streets safer. They vow to resist any effort to amend the law either by an initiative or legislative action.

The Justice Policy Institute, which issued its latest report on the tenth anniversary of the law's passage, is right. There is no evidence that the three strikes law is directly responsible for California or the nation's plunge in violent crime. In New York, which has no three strikes law, the crime rate has dropped just as sharply as California's. In Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Washington D.C. which also have no three strikes law, crime rates have plunged almost as steeply as California's. In the other states that have three strikes laws, none of whom use them anywhere near as extensively as California, crime rates have also dropped.

The same pattern holds for counties in California. Between 1993 and 2002, there was a 24 percent greater drop in the crime rate in San Francisco County, which sparingly prosecutes three strikes cases, than in L.A. County, which has one of the highest three strike prosecution rates.

The odds are that most of the 50,000 felons that have been jailed under the law probably would have wound up behind bars anyway. In the three years following passage of the law the crime rate in the state steadily fell. It dropped because of an aging population, the state's improved job and business climate, the expansion of community policing programs, and more effective youth and adult drug counseling and treatment programs.

Despite the gaping flaws, the three strikes law hasn't struck out. If the present lock-em'-up forever trend continues thousands of three strike offenders will continue to be herded into bulging jail cells. The majority of them will be Latinos and African-Americans, and they will be jailed mostly for non-violent crimes such as drug offenses or petty theft. And taxpayers will be forced to spend billions more to feed, house, and provide medical care for them as they while away decades in prison.

Every attempt to dump or change the law in California and other states has failed miserably. And there are two reasons why. The first is that much of the public is scared stiff of crime. They are not reassured by the cheerful reports, studies, and government statistics that show that crime in California and the nation has dropped. Crime, any crime, causes shivers of rage and trauma in most people. Nearly everyone can tell a story of someone whose house was broken into, had their purse snatched, car stolen, or were assaulted. If they don't have a personal story to tell about crime, the nightly newscasts gladly hand them one by spoon-feeding the public a steady diet of car jackings, rapes, murders, fast and slow car chases.

The second reason three strikes are safe for the moment is that politicians obsessively check the opinion polls. They know that there is no detectable swing in public sentiment toward modifying, let alone eliminating, the three strikes law. Few politicians will run the risk of being tagged as soft on crime by calling for reform or elimination of the law. Such a call is regarded as a political death knell for them comes election time. Even the widely publicized appeal in California a few years ago of Mark Klass, the father of Polly Klass whose murder ignited public furor and propelled the passage of the three strikes law, to apply three strikes only to violent criminals fell on deaf public ears.

This was the right pitch to make. The three strikes law is supposed to apply exclusively to violent criminals, and if it must stay on the books, it should still only apply to them. But even this logical, but tepid reform, would face rough sledding. Crime is crime to much of the public. Few are willing to make any fine distinctions between someone who robs a bank or sells or possesses a small amount of cocaine. The perception is that the cocaine dealer or user today could be the bank robber or murderer tomorrow, so better to get them off the streets before that happens.

These are the towering obstacles that prevent a much-needed overhaul of the law. Yet, three strike enthusiasts and state officials eventually must confront a terrible reality. Three strikes needlessly imprisons thousands of persons who commit petty crimes. For a fraction of the cost of preserving three strikes, they could be better helped by more drug treatment, job and skills training programs. But, worst of all, the law criminalizes a generation of young black and Latino males. While this is a horrible price to pay for a hopelessly flawed law, the voters and politicians are still more than willing to pay it.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

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