Thursday, June 01, 2006

California's Three Strikes Law

In 1994, the State of California enacted a law colloquially called "The Three Strikes and You're Out" Law.

Baseball references aside, the law basically stated that upon the third felony conviction, a person would have to serve time in prison if they have two violent felonies behind them.

I lived in California in '94 and I remember that support for the law was great among the citizens. California was ready for more "get tough on crime" legislation, and Three Strikes seemed to be a step in the right direction.

But the law was somewhat flawed. Suppose a person commits some crimes - really bad ones - murdering a neighbor, and burning down a building. Bad crimes, no question. But after serving due time for the crimes, he's released. A few years later, he gets busted for simple possession of a controlled substance. A felony. Thanks to Three Strikes, he's back in prison. Opponents of the law feel that the third felony should need to be one of violence rather than just any old felony in order to trigger Three Strikes.

The other way the law was flawed is that it made felonies committed prior to the law being enacted countable towards that third strike.

An example

One of the felonies that qualify for a strike is robbery of a residence in which a deadly or dangerous weapon is used. Let's say in 1972 a criminal breaks, enters, and robs a home. Homeowner hears the ruckus, comes out in his bathrobe, gun in hand, and encounters the criminal. Shots are exchanged. Nobody dies. The robber goes to trial, gets convicted, and gets sentenced to 10 years in prison. Serves seven, and gets released for good behavior.

Flash forward to 1987. Pretty much the same story. Same guy robs another residence. This time the unarmed homeowner startles the convict, who turns and fires at the homeowner. Nobody dies. Guy goes to trial again, gets convicted, and receives a twelve year sentence. Serves seven, gets out on some state sponsored work-release program.

But now it's 1994, and California's Three Strikes and You're Out law is in place. The hapless criminal may or may not know about the law, but that doesn't stop him from setting fire to his estranged girlfriend's car while she was visiting relatives in another town. Nobody dies. Doesn't matter. This felonious case of arson counts as the Third Strike, and now the criminal is sent to prison for twenty five years or more.

So no matter what crimes were committed prior to the law's enactment, and no matter what the punishment for those crimes were at the time they were committed, they now will be counted as a Strike.

A discussion on the matter

It is over this point that I conversed with a colleague during the heated debates the bill generated before it passed.

"What do you think of the Three Strikes and You're Out law they are proposing?" I asked.

"If you can't do the time, don't do the crime," cliched my colleague.

"Don't you think that it is unfair to have a retroactive punishment that differs from the original punishment that was in effect at the time the crime was committed?" I offered.

"No," he started, "if you are dumb enough to commit a crime, you should realize that you are going to be held accountable for your actions. What makes the difference if the laws were more lenient when the crime was committed?"

Case in point

So I told him this. Suppose in 1972 you are 17 years old. You're cruising with your friends, got the radio cranking, and you're driving rather recklessly. Your girlfriend is hollering at you to slow down, but you don't care. You're only going 10 miles over the limit. What's the worst that can happen? Your best friend got caught speeding 15 miles over the limit just last month and he just got a $50 fine and lost his license for two weeks.

But sure enough, a cop saw you and pulled you over. You got a ticket. Twelve miles over. A hundred and fifty bucks and license suspension for a month. Dad took away car privileges for another month. Tough break when you're seventeen and all your friends still have their wheels. But you suck it up and move on.

Flash forward to 1990. You're 30 years old, and you're late for a doctor's appointment, so you're going a little over the limit in your BMW. Your wife is hollering at you to slow down, but you don't care. What's the worst that can happen? The maximum fine for speeding is $500, (hell, you earn that in less than three days,) and you REALLY don't want to be late.

But late you'll be because a cop saw you and pulled you over. You got a ticket. Twelve miles over. Four hundred and fifty dollars and a date with Traffic School. Tough to swallow when you're booked to the earballs with work, church, soccer camp coaching, etc. But you suck it up and move on.

But now it's 1994, and California is working on a new law. An interesting law that states that after you are convicted of your third speeding violation, you will lose your driving privilege for one year. And on top of that, any previous speeding conviction you had prior to this, (no matter what the consequences were at the time,) would be counted against you under the new law. You would have to take public transportation or be driven to work, church, soccer camp, etc.

"Still feel that a retroactive punishment that differs from the original punishment in effect at the time you sped before is fair?" I asked my colleague.

He did not respond.