Baseball is said to be the American past time, but what does baseball, have to do with the American criminal justice system? The three strikes and you are out rule works in baseball because it is mechanically engineered into the game since the inception of the game. The three strikes and you are out sentencing rule not so mechanically engineered to do so. Keep in mind that this is something I wrote a few years back for one of my classes while working on my masters. I would like to get the view points from some of you on the issue of the three strikes law, as well as getting your opinion on the decriminalization of certain crimes. I hope you enjoy the read.
The American past time
The first recorded baseball game was held in 1846 when the Knickerbockers lost to a team from New York (Bellis, Mary). During that time the number of strikes afforded to a batter was seven, and 43 years later in 1889 the rules were changes to reflect 3 strikes and the batter was out. The American criminal justice system decided that 148 years after baseball changed the rules to three strikes and you are out, the American criminal justice system would incorporate the same rule into the field of justice.
The plan appeared to be simple as it was related to baseball and the concept worked there then it would work here. The rule was simple; a criminal would get three attempts to become a productive citizen of American society, by following the rules (laws) that society had deemed appropriate. If a citizen could not follow them and ended up behind bars they would be afforded two more opportunities before they would be locked up and forgotten about. The concept seemed to be appropriate; however, it was not well thought out.
In 1994 the three strikes ballot measure passed in California by a decisive 72%. This measure was brought to light because of the murder of 12-year old Polly Klaas who was abducted and killed by a Richard Allen Davis. Richard’s rap sheet was traced back to 1997 and ended with his death sentence in 1996.
Under California’s version of three strikes, first and second strikes must be either violent or serious (The New York Times). Crimes such as murder, attempted murder, rape, child molestation, and armed robbery fit the criteria for sentencing a person to life in prison under the three strikes law. According to the New York Times article “Arguing three strikes,” twenty –five other states have passed three-strikes laws, but only California punishes minor crimes with the penalty of life sentencing.
The overall impact that the three strikes law had in California was not thought out very well. The law was signed by then Governor Pete Wilson and the effect of the three strikes law was supposed to have only affected the most violent criminals; however, that was not the case. The concept and theory behind the three strikes law of California was an honorable one. The effect of this law was and is felt by the police officers on the street, the jail staff, the jail facility, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, courts, probation officers, prisons, the tax payers, and anyone else involved in the justice system.
The person that is mostly affected by this law would have to be the person facing their third strike. According to Police Chief Magazine the three strikes law has caused an increase in fugitives from justice in California by 30% in the past ten years. The potential for a non violent offender to be convicted of a third strike offense is high; therefore, an offender facing his third conviction will flee from the state in hopes of not getting sentenced to life in prison. The majority of these offenders are drug related offenders. According to Police Chief Magazine other states have seen an increase in non violent offenders from outside of the respected state increase by about 20% in the past ten years.
The law that was designed to rid the streets of the most violent offenders has not worked to its full potential. Those most affected are the criminals facing the third strike, but those having to flip the bill for this law and those mostly affected indirectly are the tax payers. The tax payers have to pay higher taxes to keep the criminal incarcerated. The average offender in the state of California cost the state $115 dollars a day or $42,000 a year (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation). That translates for a person that is 25 years old convicted of his third strike and must serve a minimum of 25 years of his life sentence will cost the tax payer a total of $1,050,000 dollars for their incarceration. This adds up when the state of California has 694 convicted murders on death row, and only 13 have been excited since the Supreme Court allowed the implantation of the death penalty in the state in 1976 ( The New York Times). The 3,700 nonviolent and nonserious offenders serving life for their third strike in the state of California outnumbers the 3,263 inmates serving a sentence on death row nationwide (The New York Times). That means that those 3,263 inmates cost the state of California approximately $155,400,000 a year and counts against their allocated $10,017,591,000 dollar budget for fiscal year 2011-2012 (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation).
Creation and enforcement of three strikes law
The legislative and executive branches had the right idea when the bill was signed into law. The mistake that was made was that the definition of a serious crime in the state of California is a term of art that can also include crimes such as none confrontational burglaries and after a second strike conviction for an offense such as anything other than jaywalking or a traffic offense can trigger a life sentence.
This law has placed a burden on the criminal justice system in many ways. We will use California as the prime example. The California prison population increased by 500% between 1982 and 2000 with the highest spike in population in 1995 to 2004 (California Department of Corrections). The Christian Science Monitor has attributed the prison population increase as a direct result of the three strikes sentencing law. The number of cases that had to be heard in a courtroom more than doubled by 50% in the last 20 years and because of this the court system has seen a back log of cases in the court rooms. In an attempt to lessen the burden the number of courts and judges increased by 20% in an attempt to keep up with the case load (California Department of Justice). As a result of this there were also an increased number of jury pools that had to be established to accommodate the trials. A survey that was conducted in 1996 revealed that civil cases were being delayed because of the three strike case taking precedence. This caused an overflow and a shortage of courtrooms. The safety concern was also addressed as many civil courtrooms had to be used to handle the three strike cases. The civil courtrooms are not equipped with metal detectors and lacked stringent security measures.
As a direct effect of the three strike law the California court system experiences a 50% increase in felony trials due in part to the three strike legislation in 1997. The district attorney and public defender offices in the majority of the state of California where over their budgets by one million dollars and struggled to hear all the cases assigned to them with limited staffing. The courts estimated that the creation of the three strikes law added an additional $64 million dollars to the budget, and estimate that the cost five years later was $200 million (Los Angeles Times report).
There have been many recommendations made to change or improve the policy of three strikes over the years. The measures in California such as proposition 66 which appeared on the November 2, 2004 ballot called for an amendment to the three strikes law. The proposition would have defined the term serious. The amendment called for an increase in sentences only when the current conviction is for a specified violent and or serious crime. This measure was voted down by 52.7% of the vote (State of California).
Some of the recommendation that have been made and one that has already been placed into motion is the legalization of marijuana. They say that the decriminalization of possession and use of certain drugs would also help clear up some of the issues related to overcrowding and lower the case load that was brought on by the three strikes law. With the recommendation to decriminalize certain crimes related to drugs, there should also be a push to lower the punishment for certain crimes that do not for argument say have victims. Many experts say that a perfect example would be the crime of prostitution. There should be another attempt at a similar proposition 66 in the works that will help to better define the type of crimes that are eligible under the three strikes law. Crimes that do not involve injury, serious bodily injury, death, sex crime, or any crime against a child should not be labeled as serious under the three strikes law. The three strike sentencing should also not include offenses that occurred while the person was a juvenile.
The final recommendation that would be made would be to move along the number of exaction's in the state of California and free up the space on death row for those sentenced to death. This would send a message to the criminal element that crime, especially vicious crimes will not be tolerated.
The three strike sentencing policy in theory seemed to be a good approach to reducing crime. The implementation, costs, and consequences of the three strikes legislation, deserve careful ongoing evaluation of the law’s opportunity costs as well as its effect on crime, racial disparity, legal process, fairness in application, judicial review, and the effect on jail and prison facilities are all issues that need to be looked at. The first and biggest mistake of the three strikes law was that the issues addressed above where not reviewed and vetted before the passing of the law.
Quality of life issues are always a major issue on the mind of people in society. Quality of life issues are issues that address things like museums, libraries, parks, and stadiums. The one quality of life issue that many leave as a quality of life issue is security and peace of mind. This issue can only be addressed by creating laws such as the three strikes law and by increasing the number of police officers on the field. The three strike law sounds more like a slogan then a serious effort at reducing crime and violence. The protection of communities from repeat violent offender may be the most emotionally and politically charged challenge to the justice system to date. The issue or the answer to this will never be easy; however, the three strike law of Californian is a good start, but is in need of some major repair.