Strike 1, Strike 2, Strike 3. . .

March 28, 1994

Bill Clinton says he favors a three-strikes-and-you're-out rule: conviction of three violent crimes puts you in prison for life without parole. The theory is that most crimes of violence are committed by a relatively small number of chronic offenders. Put them away, and streets and homes become safer. But, says Attorney General Janet Reno, that means prisons become overloaded with criminals who soon become too geriatric to be dangerous. Most violent criminals are out of gas after age 50 or so. Keeping such people behind bars another 25 to 30 years is expensive and unnecessary.

They're both right, and there is a way to satisfy both. Maryland has had such a law on the books for 19 years. You could call it "three strikes and you're almost out; four and you really are."

Conviction of a third crime of violence gets a criminal a 25-year minimum sentence, no part of which may be suspended, and no parole. This is designed to take care of the people President Clinton had in mind. The most dangerous criminals would get that sentence in their 20s, probably, and be locked up till they were well into middle age -- and less dangerous, perhaps not dangerous at all.

Releasing these older prisoners should take care of Ms. Reno's concern. Non-dangerous inmates would not be taking up space that could better be used for younger, more dangerous criminals. Of course, even some of the older ex-inmates are convicted of a fourth crime of violence. That's where the "four strikes" provision comes into play. It calls for a life sentence without parole at that stage.

The state Senate just passed a three-strikes-and-you're-out bill (called a "three-time loser bill" in Annapolis). It responds to the President Clinton type of concern, but not the Janet Reno type. It would, if truly enforced, keep some criminals in prison well into their geriatric years.

The present law is not truly enforced. A better approach to chronic criminals than the Senate bill would be to close loopholes in the existing law. Make sure three-time losers serve 25 years and four-time losers go back to prison for life. That is the aim of legislation proposed by Del. John Douglass of Baltimore City. The existing statute focuses more on prior sentences than on prior convictions; furthermore, state's attorneys are not required to apply the statute in every case that fits the description. Because it is discretionary, the law is often used as a plea bargaining tool, and the felons the law is aimed at do not get the long sentences they deserve. A study by Delegate Douglass found that only 17 percent of those eligible for 25-year or life-without-parole sentences actually got them.

Plea bargaining is defended on the grounds that prosecutors would be overwhelmed if defendants insisted on trials in all such mandatory-sentence cases. But Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor never plea bargains in such cases, and this has not adversely affected her office.

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