Three Strikes and the Elevator Test

March 02, 1994

Once he was no longer a member of the Clinton administration, which supports the crime bill the Senate passed last year, Philip Heymann wasted no time denouncing it. The day after he formally left his job as deputy attorney general last month, Mr. Heymann said scornfully that the bill was largely symbolic, the product of "political debate," by which he seemed to mean demagogy. In a subsequent newspaper article he said some provisions of the bill "show the results of a legislature swept far from common sense by the heavy winds of political rhetoric about crime."

He focuses much criticism on the three-strikes-and-you're-out feature. The controversial feature is an attempt to get the most dangerous criminals off the streets forever. Mr. Heymann says that's a waste of money, since many such criminals are no longer dangerous after age 40 or 50. His old boss, Attorney General Janet Reno, has also said that. Maybe, but violent three-time losers have a 76 percent recidivism rate.

The public wants to send the violence-prone a message and to keep the truly dangerous off the streets. What's wrong with that? Mr. Heymann himself says he "would not let a dangerous person of any age out [of prison] until I'm ready to ride up and down in an elevator alone with him." One strike and you're out if you scare Phil Heymann? Makes sense, but it's not a practical test.

One of the three-strikes sections of the Senate crime bill, sponsored by Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, would put those who commit three drug crimes in for life. We agree that's not needed. But the other three-strikes section of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., appears to apply only to those convicted of three crimes of actual violence. That makes sense. In fact, the Clinton administration proposed a very similar provision to a House of Representatives subcommittee Tuesday; an official testified that Ms. Reno now supports it.

Some violent criminals who strike out would remain in prison after they no longer posed a danger to society, at great cost to taxpayers. Presumably there would be only a few such individuals. Executive clemency could deal with them. If experience shows that more than a few no-longer-violent elderly convicts spend long, expensive years behind bars, then the law could be rewritten.

After a decade of rising violent crime rates even as crime in general declined, the public wants much tougher sentencing for the chronically violent. Most violent crime is not federal in nature, but a high-visibility federal law will encourage the states to follow suit, and they should.

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