Three-time loser laws gain favor as public grows weary of repeat offenders

January 16, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- It has bumper-sticker simplicity and powerful political appeal: "Three strikes, and you're out!" Put another way, the idea is still simple: "Turn career criminals into career inmates."

In an era of rising fear of crime, politicians across the country are seizing on a get-tough suggestion that may well become a law in many states: A conviction for a third violent crime leads to life in prison, with no chance of being freed on parole.

The suggestion has gained popularity swiftly across the country since Washington state voters strongly approved it in an initiative election last fall. Nearly three dozen other states have asked for copies of the new law since then, and voter initiatives are being prepared in California and Oregon.

"Research shows us that most serious crimes are committed by relatively few habitual criminals," California Gov. Pete Wilson said earlier this month in a speech advocating adoption of a three-time loser law.

"California is through with revolving-door justice. . . . We can't let killers walk out of prison early just because they've done a good job folding shirts in the prison laundry."

In Congress, the Senate has adopted the idea in its version of a sweeping new federal crime bill, and Democratic Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland has offered a similar proposal in the House. Present federal criminal sentencing rules have nothing that compares in scope.

The three-time loser proposal is expected to become an issue in Maryland's General Assembly this year, and could be an issue in the campaign for governor.

Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg embraced the idea in announcing his candidacy for governor last week. He noted that Maryland has a similar law now, but that it was not being enforced. He vowed to enforce it if elected.

Under two current Maryland laws, a third conviction for a crime of violence requires a prison sentence of at least 25 years with no parole, and a fourth conviction for such a crime requires life without parole.

The "three strikes and you're out" proposal emerging in many states is a variation on a long-standing criminal justice policy of punishing repeating criminals more severely; every state, including Maryland, has such "habitual offender" laws.

But many of those laws leave prosecutors with discretion or require a separate trial on the sentence, and often lead to release from prison after the offender has served only part of a sentence.

What makes the new proposal different, its supporters stress, is that the third serious crime conviction automatically triggers a life sentence with no chance of ever getting freed.

The idea is part of a broader campaign, spreading through state legislatures, to take away parole entirely or grant it less frequently after conviction for violent crimes -- even after a first offense.

Thirty-three states, including Maryland, have life-without-parole sentences available to juries trying the most serious crimes, including murder.

The newest variation, though, is the Washington state approach. It probably was not a coincidence that governors on the nation's two coasts and from opposite political parties took to podiums on the same day recently to embrace the particular suggestion of "three strikes and you're out."

Favored by Cuomo

In "state of the state" addresses to their legislatures, New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, a liberal Democrat, and Mr. Wilson, a moderate California Republican, said the proposal should get a high priority among lawmakers this year.

"I believe felons whose repeated acts of violence make it clear that they are incorrigible should be put away, never again to terrorize our people," Mr. Cuomo said.

Said Mr. Wilson: "We know what California needs to make our cities, our suburbs and our small towns safe again. We should start with the 'Three Strikes, You're Out" bill. . . . It's time to turn career criminals into career inmates."

But not everyone thinks the three-time loser approach will work, though even critics acknowledge its appeal.

Yale Kamisar, a University of Michigan law professor and one of the nation's leading scholars on criminal law, dismissed it as "a symbolic answer."

"There certainly is no substantial evidence that it will have any impact. I would guess it is not going to have any effect. I think it's largely political posturing," he said.

"Anything like 'three times and you're out' is very attractive politically and is almost impossible for a politician to oppose," the professor said.

The American Civil Liberties Union is fighting the effort to have a federal "three-time loser" law, contending that it won't work, that it will fall most heavily on minorities who have past convictions that were a result of race bias, and that it will cost much more in public funds to defend "three-time losers" too poor to hire their own lawyers.

The idea also has enthusiastic supporters.

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