Three strikes and you’re out! For most people, that phrase evokes lazy summer evenings at the ballpark (or in front of the TV), beverage and hotdog at the ready, rooting for the home team.
But, this warm and fuzzy image has nothing to do with the fate of thousands of federal and state prisoners. For them, three strikes means being sentenced to harsh mandatory minimums – up to life without parole; sentences often rendered outlandish by the banality of the third offense that triggered them.
This must read piece by the Crime Report recounts how,
during the 1980s and 1990s, states passed a raft of tough-on-crime measures, including mandatory minimum sentencing, truth in sentencing laws, and three-strikes laws. Partly as a result, the country’s prison population doubled from 1990 to 2010, to more than 1.5 million.The worst of them imposed lengthy, non-paroleable sentences for minor offenses, so long as they were preceded by two qualifying felonies. As a prosecutor interviewed for the story said: “It’s not your current crime so much as what you did in the past.” That might work at the plate, but not in a thoughtful and evidence-based justice system.
In the last few years, budget pressures and growing awareness of best practices have prompted a number of states to roll back three strikes and other unduly harsh mandatory minimum sentencing schemes:
Of the 24 states that passed three-strikes laws in the early 1990s, at least 16 have since modified them to give judges more discretion in sentencing or narrow the types of crimes that count as a “strike,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).California is poised to consider a sweeping reform of the country’s most notorious three strikes scheme when voters go to the polls in November. And, wherever you think California falls on the spectrum, these reforms are not only championed by blue states or liberals:
At least 14 states in recent years also either eliminated mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenders, or gave judges more discretion to consider alternatives to incarceration, according to the NCSL.
Though criminal justice reform was once thought of as a purely liberal issue, many of the most dramatic changes have come in traditionally conservative states, such as Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia, which have passed comprehensive reform packages.In the interest of fair and proportionate sentences, here’s hoping more states – and Congress – take a tough look at their mandatory sentencing laws and leave three strikes to the big leagues.
Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate in the country, recently gave prosecutors and judges sentencing discretion for some crimes that normally carry mandatory minimum penalties and will allow early release for some non-violent offenders sentenced to life without parole. Prominent conservatives, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Attorney General Edwin Meese, have also spoken out in favor of reform, including eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenses.