Atilla and Me

The three strikes proposal needs to be reconsidered.

The three strikes proposal needs to be reconsidered.

Governor William F. Weld '66 has always had sharp political instincts, but his recent statement of his position on crime--"I'm somewhere to the right of Atilla the Hun"--only demonstrates that he's finally caught up with what the people have been saying for months.

Just in yesterday's New York Times, for example, a page-one story recounted how state legislators are tripping and falling over themselves in their rush to enact "tough" sentencing laws against criminals. Criminals seem to be the one constituency wholly out of favor with politicians.

The most popular of these state measures is the "three strikes and you're out" proposal. Unless you've been living in Cabot Library for the last year, you probably know that this proposal mandates sentencing criminals to life in prison without parole if they are convicted of three serious felonies.

As the Times reported, 30 variations of this proposal have been introduced in state legislatures since last November, when voters in Washington state first approved it. To some degree, it's really a shame that intellectual property rights don't have force here; otherwise the policy wonks who dreamed up this idea would be living large on the royalties from this policy sweeping the nation. "Three strikes and you're out" has enjoyed a success politically equivalent to having a number one album on the Billboard 200.

What's interesting, of course, is the seeming arbitrariness of "three strikes and you're out." Why, for instance, three strikes and not two or four? It's clearly the symmetry with America's pastime that has driven Americans to their present war cry against crime. On the other hand, why couldn't it be four downs and you punt? I guess it's not as catchy.

But, despite the popularity of three strikes, the game of political one-up-manship has already started. In some states, three strikes is being view as too generous to criminals.

Georgia, for example, recently passed a law that allowed only two strikes for violent felons. Zell Miller, the governor there who faces re-election in the fall, said, "If you want three strikes in Georgia, You'd better join a baseball team."

Californians, not to be outdone in sentencing innovation, are now reviewing "one strike" legislation that would sentence child molesters and rapists to life with out parole.

Nobody could beat the "toughness" of the Californians, or so one might think. But in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, one legislator, who remained nameless in yesterday's Times article, is advocating "three strikes and you're dead." Now that guy's tough. Smart too, since he realizes that if you're going to keep someone in jail for life without parole, you might as well save the taxpayers the upkeep and maintenance of the prisons. How thoughtful.

With all this toughness around me, I am fearful, quite fearful. Not that I'll now go out and commit one, two or three felonies. That, as my grandmother tells me, should be my greatest worry in life.

No, I'm worried that criminals who are not deterred by these sentencing measures will become all the more violent, in a calculated move to evade arrest when facing life sentences without parole.

Maybe that's a reasonable price to pay for the deterrent effect these state legislators are counting on. But then again, maybe it's not. We should not be afraid, in any case, to think hard about why we punish the way that we do.

Dan Markel's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.