Three strikes and out?

March 24, 1994|By Gary Delgado

THREE STRIKES and you're out." The phrase evokes ball parks, peanuts, hot dogs, clean uniforms and fair play. Unfortunately, the Senate crime bill currently speeding through Congress is anything but fair.

The bill proposes some of the most punitive legislation in our history. Beyond locking up three-time felony offenders for life without parole, it will put 100,000 more police officers on the streets, build more prisons, expand mandatory minimum sentences to more crimes, reclassify 64 federal violations as capital crimes and allow prosecutors to try 13- and 14-year-olds as adults.

The "get tough on crime" atmosphere in Washington borders on ruthlessness, and is hardly productive. As Senate Judiciary Chair Joseph Biden, D-Del., told reporters, "If someone proposed barb-wiring the ankles of anyone who jaywalks, I think it would pass." Moreover, many of the bill's provisions are about as useful as barbed-wire ankle cuffs.

For example, mandatory minimum sentences will take away a judge's discretionary power of sentencing and inevitably put the wrong people behind bars for too long.

"Three strikes" could also play havoc with police work. Word on the street is that if the rap carries a life-long tag, twice-convicted felons may do "whatever's necessary" to avoid the third arrest.

Conservatives who claim that the courts are soft on crime forget that this country already has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. If we are going to call strikes on criminals, shouldn't we also be calling strikes on the correctional system?

We have abandoned rehabilitation. Currently in California, only 3 percent of the state's 120,000 prisoners get any kind of drug or alcohol counseling, 4 percent get academic or vocational training, while 8 percent receive counseling to help them adjust to life outside prison.

Giving up on rehabilitation is failing after the fact, but we've also failed before the fact. Too many inmates in state prisons are people of color, a direct reflection of urban unemployment levels close to 60 percent for young black and Latino men.

Current studies indicate that for every Latino male with a bachelor's degree, 24 other Latinos are in jail. One out of four young black men is mired in prison or on parole or probation.

And prison is not cheap. The $6 billion allocated in the crime bill for new prisons is only one tenth of the $60 billion operating costs for these prisons over their first five years. Construction and financing should total $294 billion, and the final costs to the states could be as high as $350 billion.

Given the draconian provisions of the current crime bill, it is no surprise that the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association, the Black and Hispanic Congressional caucuses, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the National Legal Aid Defender Association are all opposed.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors and the police chiefs of major cities are also opposed to the Senate's approach. The mayors and police chiefs jointly issued a list of crime-fighting recommendations to the White House last December. Their program called for job training, affordable housing, child care, and recreational programs, along with firearm control and funding for police overtime and equipment.

What do the mayors and police chiefs know that the politicians don't? Simple: Urban crime and urban decay are two sides of the same coin. To solve the crime problem at its roots, the Congressional Black Caucus has put together a $60 billion plan for urban America. However, the Clinton administration cut that figure to $30 billion, and Congress further whittled it down, first to $16 billion and then finally to $5 billion.

The equation is elementary: The annual cost of keeping one inmate in prison could send 10 students to community college. Which do you suppose is a better investment? Still, the same Congress that wouldn't spend more than $5 billion for prevention is now going to fork over $22 billion for punishment.

That's what I'd call a strike-out.

Gary Delgado is the director of the Applied Research Center in Oakland, Calif., and is currently a scholar in residence at the Institute for the Study of Social Change at U.C. Berkeley.

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