According to President Bill Clinton, “We have a chance to pass the toughest, smartest crime bill in the history of the United States,” and this was the belief that most California residents felt at the time the “Three Strikes and you’re out Law,” took effect in 1994. The purpose of the Three Strikes Law is to punish repeat violent crime offenders upon receiving their third conviction of any felony.
Initially, if a person receives a serious or violent felony conviction, this is considered a first strike, subsequently, then the second serious or violent felony criminal charge that is received would be a second strike and the individual will serve double the time originally assessed for the initial felony, finally upon the third felony conviction an individual is given a minimum prison sentence of 25 to life.
Although, individuals in twenty three states, the federal government, and several politicians, including President Bill Clinton and Senator Bob Dole supported the passage of the Three Strikes Law, the first state being Washington, the “Three Strikes” bandwagon was set in motion at a time in society where fear of crime was at its peak. Resulting in law enforcement and other government officials going to the extreme in promising to end violent crime.
Hence, if three strikes are supposed to be a fair and impartial punishment for all criminals’ committing serious and violent crimes, then the degree of crime committed must also be inclusive to the punishment received. Thus, is it fair to punish a man who has two previous felonies of a serious nature for stealing a one dollar item on his third offense, the same as we would punish an individual who also acquired two previous serious felonies and on the third committed murder? Absolutely not!
However, law enforcement, government officials, and citizens feel the three strikes law is effectively reducing serious crime; particularly, in the area of eliminating career criminals, reducing crime rates, and allowing for law enforcement and judges to have a better peace of mind with regard to civil unrest. At that time penalties in California were considered too low, the government appeared to be faltering in granting parole to the less violent/petty criminals, basically, handling all crime in the same fashion.
Indeed, a high percentage of repeat offender cases were reduced to lesser charges on a consistent basis within the court system in California at this time. Also, victims of crime’s confidence in the effectiveness of the law in removing violent criminals from their communities were increased during the first five years of implementing the law, because of an increased rate of criminal convictions made, which were based on 2nd strikes totaling 36,043, and 3rd strike convictions totaling 4,468.
Furthermore, as Gladwell demonstrates in chapter 8 of David and Goliath, “between 1994 through 1998, the homicide rate in California dropped by 41. percent, rape dropped by 10. 9 percent, robbery dropped by 38. 7 percent, assault dropped by 22. 1 percent, burglary dropped by 29. 9 percent, and auto theft dropped by 36. 6 percent” (760). In fact, the initial reduction of crime resonated the idea in society’s mind that harsher sentences equal civil obedience, specifically in cases of violent repeat offenders. Therefore, the government provided a sense of security to Americans, that yes, we are doing what we said, punishing all serious offenders with the use of the three strikes law effectively and the statistics support the success of the law.
Of course, advocates of the three strikes credit the law for making our streets and communities safer. Conversely, the exact opposite is proving true which has left California with overcrowded prisons, a large deficit in funds afforded to prisons, and a loss of more social programs that provide resources to individuals dealing with the criminal court process. Hence, if we are to adopt a law to deal with career deviancy, it should not only be fair and just, but it must also be constantly evaluated to ensure the equality when applying it to each individual accordingly.
A prime example of the inequalities in the law is detailed by Gladwell, in David and Goliath, specifically, in the Brownsville neighborhood where a police chief named Jaffe was faced with a high percentage of felons within a particular community consisting of primarily African American citizens who had been incarcerated due to the belief that strict punishment reduces violent crime. Uniquely, if a certain percentage, approximately two percent of the population or more in any given society is reached, then the effect of the punishment is severely diminished (Gladwell 790).
Notably, within the next five years the above imprisonment numbers would triple and not because of violent or serious crimes, but instead from petty offenses which were handled under the three strikes law. Likewise, in actuality the law is limited in scope and disproportionately affects the African American/other ethnic minorities specifically. Moreover, prior to the three strikes law African Americans in the State of California’s prison population were only 4%, 5 years subsequent to the implementation of the three strikes law and that number has increased to 23%, and 36% of three strike convictions.
There have been many other studies performed that are up for interpretation, but the one common theme throughout all of the studies is that the three strikes law has not been proven to have reduced violent crimes, is costly, and is applied independently based upon prosecutor/judge’s discretion, which often varies depending on conservatism within or liberalism, as well as the parameters of the law within that particular state.
On the other hand, per a career criminal interviewed named Randy, at the age of eight years old he began committing petty non-violent crimes, and claims the three strikes law is necessary, he insists that his chronic criminal deviancy is more related to his social upbringing, environment, family support system, along with many other environmental, physical and peer involvement issues.
Randy, describes a childhood filled with incest including seeing and participating from a young age in violence, drugs, and sadomasochistic behaviors; certainly, this would create a distorted ideation of how a non-deviant person should behave according to the “norms” of our society. The main point Randy makes to me during this interview is that; instead of, the court system providing any type of early intervention program prior to him reaching adulthood; rather, the opposite approach, excessive punishment was taken and is the exact reason why the criminal behavior ultimately progressed into violence.
Randy from the age of six years old was committed to inpatient mental facilities, juvenile jails, and schools that specialized in using harsh physical tactics. Unfortunately, Randy’s mother was an indomitable force when utilizing trickery to make it appear to the world that she was a loving, nurturing, and involved mother. Undoubtedly, the system failed to identify the heinousness of his mother’s behavior until after she committed murder.
Rather than, to understand why the behavior was occurring with the child, the court system simply would give him a slap on the hand and send him to another institution to learn from other deviants how to escalate his criminal behavior. Randy stated, “If someone would have looked into my environment and the abuse I was suffering, a simple resolution of placing me into a loving environment could have changed my behavior forever. I felt a sense of autonomy after a certain point of not getting caught, especially when I was charged with seventeen felonies that were all reduced/dropped resulting in serving only five years’ probation.
Then, towards the end of the interview he says with a sad expression, “had three strikes been a law applied to his mother in the case of the eighteen year old college student who was tortured and killed, she may still have been alive today. ” Often, even in the case where an individual has two previous felony convictions, and is facing a petty offense for the third, the judge’s hands are still tied in convicting to a minimum mandatory sentence of 25 to life, due to the three strikes law.
In other words, in a case where a judge knows a five year sentence warrants punishment for a particular crime, he still must convict to mandatory time frame written into the three strikes law. Although, in the beginning the three strikes law appeared to have a great impact on the reduction of violent crime, burglary, and theft; which, allows for a substantial feeling in society that they can be safe in their communities and that criminals are appropriately being punished.
American’s felt a great sense of relief, believing that each person sentenced under three strikes was another reason they were safe. Just as, they believed, now, habitual offenders were not able to reduce or have the charges dismissed and being sentenced fairly. Also, society was confident that now repeat offenders would be punished based on the seriousness of their crimes. After all, the government did release several reports, including statistics verifying that the law was doing its job in reducing crime in every category.
However, overall there can be no accountability or guarantee of equality or fairness in this law as it is up to individual use and interpretation by prosecutors depending on circumstances and judges must comply accordingly. Regardless of whether a person steals a slice of pizza on their third felony conviction or commits murder the same sentence being applied defeats the very principle of legitimacy and the u curve. If we are to punish a certain group of individuals’, it must be fair and consistent in its use and application within ethnic groups, age groups, and in general the atmosphere must be coherent with rehabilitation efforts.
How can we expect young criminals who have not developed their frontal lobes at 19 only committing crimes for 5 years to accept a 25 to year sentence, the same as we would a 40 year old man that has a 15 year criminal past? The answer is we cannot, in order to ensure profiling, inequality, and unfairness do not occur and laws are equal and just, we must identify at an earlier stage in life why the delinquency is occurring preventing future criminogenic behaviors.