3 Strikes Laws: Cruel and Unusual Punishment Washington State was the first in the nation to enact a “3 Strikes Law”, which provides for harsher sentencing for repeat offenders. While this sounds logical, the system used to determine these harsher sentences is deeply flawed and unconstitutional. 3 Strikes laws demand double the standard prison term for a second felony conviction, and mandatory sentences of 25 years to life for a 3rd conviction. For an example of this law in action, lets look at a few hypothetical criminals. Our first villain, lets call him Jerry, is an 18 year old caucasian male from Olympia.
He is convicted of armed robbery after holding up a convenience store. After agreeing to a plea bargain, Jerry is sentenced to 2 years in state prison and 3 years probation. Most would agree this is a fair sentence. 6 years later, Jerry is charged with 2nd degree assault after breaking another mans jaw in a fight at a minor league baseball game in Tacoma. His friend Tom is also charged with 2nd degree assault after hitting an innocent bystander with a beer bottle during the same fight. Tom receives a 3 year sentence, followed by a years probation.
After a jury trial, Jerry is sentenced to 8 years in prison for the same crime. Why, you may ask. The answer is simple. 3 strikes laws demand that because Jerry has a previous felony conviction, although more than half a decade previous and completely unrelated, he is subject to double the standard sentence for his “2nd Strike”. Now lets move 10 years into the future. Jerry is now 36 years old, having spent more than half his adult life behind bars. Because of the harsher sentence imposed for his 2nd strike, he has no family, does not own a home, and works flipping burgers at a local chain restaurant.
One night after work, he is contacted by his friend James, a 26 year old man who works at the car wash across the street from Jerry’s place of work. Jawan offers Jerry a 50 inch flat screen T. V. for 200 dollars, a fraction of its value. Jerry is suspicious, but could never afford the T. V. at its regular price on his minimum-wage salary, so he buys the T. V. from Jawan without incident. Two weeks later, police arrive at Jerry’s door and arrest him on suspicion of receiving stolen property. It turns out Jawan had stolen the T. V. from a house he burglarized a month previously, and that he had been arrested after a vigilant neighbor went to the police and gave them the licence plate number of a car he had seen parked across the street the night the burglary had occurred. The vehicle belonged to James, and his fingerprints matched those at the house that had been broken into. When questioned by police and prosecutors, he had revealed the location of all the stolen property in exchange for a lighter sentence, leading to Jerry’s arrest.
Jerry is charged with theft by receiving, and after a short trial is sentenced to 25 years to life under the 3 strikes law. Meanwhile, James, who perpetrated the burglary, is sentenced to 3 years and receives a 5000 dollar fine because it is his first felony conviction. There is not a single person that would say this is fair sentencing for Jerry’s crime, and many would say a life sentence for receiving stolen property constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, which would be a violation of Jerry’s constitutional rights as an American.
Now you have seen how 3 Strikes Laws lead to unfair and unduly harsh sentencing for minor crimes, but their fallacy does not end there. 3 Strikes Laws also cost taxpayers billions of dollars a year, lead to more violence against law enforcement officers, and do little to deter crime. 3 Strikes laws are forcing more and more petty criminals into already overburdened state prisons, and increasing the per inmate cost of operating those prisons. This increased cost is due to the fact that it costs an average of $20,000 dollars a year to house a young, physically fit inmate with no health problems.
However, the 3 Strikes Laws lead to a growing geriatric prison population, with much steeper costs to incarcerate. These older prisoners cost an average of $60,000 year to keep in prison, while incarcerating them does little to improve public safety, as people over the age of 60 commit less than one percent of all violent crimes. The extra, unnecessary expense is shouldered by taxpayers, diverting funding from beneficial projects like road maintenance and public education. Taxpayers lso pay the extra court costs of 3 strikes laws, stemming from defendants facing longer sentences declining plea bargains (which cost the taxpayers an average of $600 per case) and instead opting for a full trial, often costing taxpayers $50,000 per case. Furthermore, most defendants in these cases are indigent (unable to afford a lawyer), so taxpayers incur additional expenses paying for a public defender to be assigned in cases that would have otherwise never seen a courtroom.
In short, 3 Strikes Laws are costing YOU money. These unjust laws also lead to more violence towards law enforcement officers and the general public, as 3rd strikers facing life in prison are more likely to resist arrest, kill witnesses, and resort to other desperate measures to avoid prison. The same criminals would often come quietly if faced with the standard sentence for their crimes, but feel they have nothing to lose when already facing 25 to life. Many law enforcement officers and prosecutors oppose these laws.
For example, a group consisting of 20 current and former prosecutors released the following scenario to show the failure of 3 strikes laws: “An 18-year old high school senior pushes a classmate down to steal his Michael Jordan $150 sneakers — Strike One; he gets out of jail and shoplifts a jacket from the Bon Marche, pushing aside the clerk as he runs out of the store — Strike Two; he gets out of jail, straightens out, and nine years later gets in a fight in a bar and intentionally hits someone, breaking his nose — criminal behavior, to be sure, but hardly the crime of the century, yet it is Strike Three.
He is sent to prison for the rest of his life. ” When those who are responsible for putting criminals behind bars say a law has failed miserably, maybe its time to listen Finally, 3 Strikes Laws do little to deter violent crime, which was their primary purpose in the first place. They have little value in this area because most violent crimes are committed on a whim, often due to anger or under the influence of alcohol.
The people committing these crimes are not thinking about the consequences of their actions at the time, so harsher penalties don’t affect their decisions to commit these acts. For those who do plan to commit these crimes, harsher penalties do not affect their decision making because a majority believe they won’t be caught. Sadly, they are correct in thinking this way. Of the 34 million violent crimes reported on average each year, only 3 million arrests are made.
This means that less than 1 in 10 violent offenders will be arrested, and an even smaller number will be convicted or serve a prison sentence. Deterring crime through harsher penalties just does not work, it’s time to try something else. So now I ask you, if the government asked you to pass a law that would lead to cruel and unusual punishment, cost the public billions annually, harm policemen and innocent bystanders, and have no real benefit, what would you say?
The answer from the general public would be a resounding no. It is time for us, the people, to strike down these unjust, unconstitutional laws once and for all. The constitution is the highest law in the land, and renders these laws themselves illegal. It is time to give the death penalty to the 3 Strikes Laws. I urge you, for your own sake and the sake of those you love, write to your government, let your voice be heard, and say “No! ” to cruel and unusual punishment and 3 Strikes Laws.
ACLU. “10 Reasons to Oppose “3 Strikes, You’re Out”” American Civil Liberties Union. American Civil Liberties Union, 17 Mar. 2002. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. . Brown, Brian. “A Primer: Three Strikes: The Impact After More Than a Decade.” California Legislative Analyst’s Office. Legislative Analysts Office, Oct. 2005. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. .