Opinion: Terry Stops and Three Strikes Laws; Time to Revisit Them (Part II)

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This is Part II of a series on Policing and Police Reform. The series will explain some critical components of policing and public safety, culminating in a final piece that puts all the components together into a coherent system. Today, we will discuss “Three Strikes” laws and how they affect public safety.


In 1993, the State of Washington became the first state to enact what has become known as “Three Strikes” laws. Upon conviction of a third serious felony, the perpetrators would receive a mandatory life sentence without parole. In the Washington legislation, “serious felony,” was defined as rape, robbery, child molestation, serious assault, manslaughter or murder—a pretty tight definition encompassing violent behavior.

Since then, 28 states (including California!) and the Federal government have legislated some version of Washington’s law. There is no doubt that Three Strikes laws have had some deterrent effect on crime. Criminals actually changed their behavior. From Washington Policy

Many police officers, corrections officers and others, both inside and outside the criminal justice system, have noted that criminals fear Three Strikes. These people have also found that some criminals have modified their behavior. For once, felons are worried about the criminal justice system and that has proven to be a deterrent factor.

Some of the more extensive records have been kept by Detective Bob Shilling, who is in charge of the sex-offender detail of the special assault unit for the Seattle Police Department.

Between the time when Three Strikes first made the ballot and its election-day victory, Detective Shilling recorded that 17 two-strike (or worse) sex offenders fled to other states from Seattle alone.

In addition, more than 42 Seattle sex offenders called with questions and concerns about which crimes were listed as strikes and whether their priors counted as strikes.

In the week following the passage of Three Strikes, Detective Shilling met with three sex offenders, all two-strikers. The first sex offender complained that it wasn’t fair that he already had two strikes against him. The other two sex offenders sought treatment for the first time in their lives and wanted Detective Shilling’s help in finding a program. Both stated their fear of a life-without-parole sentence under Three Strikes. More important, neither has re-offended to date.


For more detail on Washington’s program and results, Read: Three Strikes, You’re Out: A Review

California has what is widely regarded is the most far reaching Three Strikes laws. That has caused some controversy. From FindLaw.com:

Three strikes laws have been the subject of extensive debate over whether they’re effective. Defendants sentenced to long prison terms under these laws have also sought to challenge these laws as unconstitutional. For instance, one defendant was found guilty of stealing $150 worth of video tapes from two California department stores. The defendant had prior convictions, and pursuant to California’s three strikes law, the judge sentenced the defendant to 50 years in prison for the theft of the video tapes. The defendant challenged his conviction before the U.S. Supreme Court in Lockyer v. Andrade (2003), but the Court upheld the constitutionality of the law, finding that it didn’t violate the “gross disproportionality principle.

Read: Three Strikes’ Sentencing Laws

The Federal Government also has a Three Strikes Law, also from FindLaw.com (emphasis mine):

Under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the “Three Strikes” statute provides for mandatory life imprisonment if a convicted felon: (1) has been convicted in federal court of a “serious violent felony”; and (2) has two or more previous convictions in federal or state courts, at least one of which is a serious violent felony (the other offense may be a serious drug offense).

The statute defines a serious violent felony to include the following:
* Murder;
* Manslaughter;
* Sex offenses;
* Kidnapping;
* Robbery; and
* Any offense punishable by 10 years or more which includes an element of the use of force or involves a significant risk of force


Here is where both California and the Federal government went off the rails. They both took a great idea and tried to make it the panacea for all criminal issues. The focus was supposed to be on violent crime and its deterrence. By adding other, non-violent offenses to the “strike” definition, they brought unnecessary ire from minority communities, by effectively sentencing folks to life in prison for piddling drug beefs. Fixing some of this, was the centerpiece of President Trump’s sentencing reform.

What still needs to be fixed, is the linkage between drug offenses and Three Strikes. In my (not so) humble opinion, the biggest danger drugs produce is the violence that accompanies their distribution and sale. At the end of the day, if we have to prioritize, It’s the violence we want to target.

Much has been made by the leftists about New York’s (until recently) drop in violent crime, despite the efforts of DeBlasio in neutering the NYPD. What they don’t take into account, is all the violent felons that are more or less permanently locked up because of Three Strikes. The continued drop in violence can be directly attributed to violent felons, no longer at large to ply their trade.

As part of sentencing reform at both the Federal and state level, we need to keep Three Strikes laws, but remove all association with non violent felonies. That way we keep violent felons away from innocent citizens. At the same time, we put the leftists in the position of defending violent criminals. It’s very easy to garner sympathy for somebody who was put away for life, for what on its face, appeared to be far less than a Capital Crime. Much harder to gain that same sympathy for somebody who beat a little old lady senseless and stole her weekly food money.


Up next, Broken Windows Policing. Stay tuned.

Previous Article in this Series:

Opinion: Terry Stops and Three Strikes Laws; Time to Revisit Them (Part I)


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