Three Strikes and a Gold Watch for Criminals

March 04, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA — Palo Alto, California. -- The ''Three Strikes and You're Out'' movement -- mandatory life imprisonment after three felony convictions -- is sweeping this state and more than a few others.

The other day in Sacramento, the state capital, five different ''three strikes'' bills were voted out of committee in the state assembly. (Four of them would carry life sentences only for three violent crimes; the fifth would apply to any and all felonies -- bouncing a check, for example.) It's a wacky idea (whose time may have come), but it makes you feel almost as good as shooting down Serbian jets.

Politicians here are rushing ahead with this thing despite a report by the California Department of Corrections that such a law would lead to a tripling of the state's prison population within the next 30 years. That would cost $5.7 billion a year by the year 2027. Those numbers are based on the incarceration of 275,621 new lifers on top of the current 120,000 California inmates. ''It would be the equivalent of imprisoning Anaheim,'' headlined the San Francisco Chronicle.

''What a joke,'' said Ira Reiner, the former district attorney of Los Angeles County. '' 'Three strikes' would have the same effect as the Brady Bill, which is almost no effect at all.''

As far as Mr. Reiner is concerned, ''three strikes'' would be the equivalent of giving gold watches and pensions to career criminals just at the time their violent life was ending. Taxpayers would then provide lodging, food and health care for those retired criminals.

''We know exactly who is committing the violent crime that people are most afraid of, armed robbery,'' Mr. Reiner said. ''The typical robber is an 18- to 39-year-old male, most of

them between 18 and 35. We know that as soon as one of them gets out of prison after a few years, he begins to rob again. And he is caught again, getting a longer sentence, eight or nine years for the second offense. He gets out and is caught again, going back to prison in his mid-30s, just when he is ready to 'retire.' ''

According to the Department of Corrections' analysis, life sentences after a third conviction would mean building 20 more state prisons and hiring 14,000 more corrections officers. The annual cost of just maintaining the new prisons was estimated at $1.7 billion.

''So,'' I asked, ''what would you do?''

I expected a waffling answer. But Mr. Reiner, who was blunt in office and is blunter now, said his thoughts amounted to first strike, 20 years. ''Right now,'' he said, ''we are turn

ing armed robbers back to the street, knowing full well they will do it again. Now they're talking about life in prison just when the criminal is ready to quit for whatever reason -- fear, family, whatever it is. Violent crime is a young man's business.

''If we really want to stop this armed robbery, we should institute mandatory 20-year time-served sentences on the first conviction -- not the last. Within a couple of years, violent crime would drop to a fraction of what it is now because the people who commit those crimes would be in jail until they were 40 years old or so.

''That may sound harsh, but it would not affect due process. What it would affect is recidivism and more crime. But we are not doing anything like that. We have, in effect, decided to tolerate violent crime -- and what's going on now is nothing more than an exercise in feeling good.''

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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