Today, the development of the criminal justice system raises a number of important issues and challenges, which put under a question the effectiveness of the existing criminal justice system. At this point, it is worth mentioning the fact that one of the major challenges to the modern criminal justice system is the development of the effective system of prevention of crimes and punishment of offenders. In this respect the problem of the introduction of the three strike law becomes one of the most debatable issues. To put it more precisely, initially, the three strike law was enacted to enhance the criminal justice system and to prevent violent offenses through strict punishment of offenders, who commit violent crimes repeatedly. However, the implementation of the three strike law has revealed a number of drawbacks, including the inundation of prisons with the population, which is not always involved in violent crimes. What is meant here is the fact that the three strikes law has introduced stricter measures in relation to violent offenders, whereas, on the other hand, the three strikes law has led to the increase of the prison population, including offenders sentenced for minor crimes on the ground of the three strikes law. In such a context, the question arises whether the three strikes law is worth implementing further because its positive effects can hardly outweigh negative ones for the prison population grows, the criminal systems becomes stricter, whereas the opportunities for felony has become fewer that leads to the introduction of strict punitive approach to offenders.
The introduction of the three strikes law was one of the most prospective innovations in the criminal justice system of the US in the late 20th century. Beginning in the early 1990s, states began to enact mandatory sentencing laws for repeat criminal offenders. These statutes came to be known as “three strikes laws,” because they were invoked when offenders committed their third offense (D’Addesa, 2003). By 2003 over half the states and the federal government had enacted three strikes laws (Barak, 2008). The belief behind the laws was that getting career criminals off the streets was good public policy. However, the laws have their critics, who charge that sentences are often disproportionate to the crimes committed and that incarceration of three strikes inmates for 25 years to life would drive up correctional costs (D’Addesa, 2003)
The introduction of the three strikes law aimed at the enhancement of the existing legislation and the criminal justice system in terms of the prevention of violent offenses and cases of recidivism. At this point, it is worth mentioning the fact that, when the three strikes law was introduced first, many states had started to introduce the law to enhance the criminal justice at the state level. They expected gaining positive effects from the introduction of the three strikes law.
At this point, it is worth mentioning the fact that the three strikes sentencing of offenders who have committed a number of violent crimes has rarely drawn much criticism (Braithwaite, 1995). Nevertheless, it is hardly possible to underestimate benefits of the three strikes law. First of all, concerns about the fairness and proportionality of the law have been raised when an offender is sent to prison for 25 years for shoplifting or some other minor property crime (Barak, 2008). Critics note that a 25-year sentence for a third strike shoplifting offense is the same sentence meted out to those who commit murder (Zimring, Hawkins, Kamin, 2001). In such a way, the introduction of the three strikes law seemed to reach its strategic goal as violent offenders got long-term sentences and were excluded from the society and, therefore, deprived of the possibility to commit violent crimes.
On the other hand, some specialists (Barak, 2008) argue that many of the defendants sent to jail under three-strikes laws are non-violent repeat offenders. The original intent of the law was the stop violent criminals, but the result has been that criminals with a history of minor offenses, such as petty theft or drug dealing, are being sent away for longer terms than criminals who commit violent acts (Johnson, 2005). In such a context, benefits of the three strikes law for the criminal justice system can be put under a question.
At this point, it is worth mentioning the fact that the three strikes law has a number of drawbacks. First of all, the prison population has grown so much that most are already filled beyond capacity and many more prisons need to be built; tax payers will have to foot the bill (Zimring, Hawkins, Kamin, 2001). Three strikes laws are not effective crime prevention measures, they are unnecessarily harsh sentencing guidelines that punish harmless petty criminals and overcrowd our prisons (Johnson, 2005). In such a way, the three strikes law fails to reach its major goal to imprison dangerous recidivists, who commit violent crimes over and over again. Instead, the three strikes law led to the imprisonment of offenders, who commit minor crimes.
On the other hand, if a criminal does not reform after two felony convictions, it is unlikely that he or she ever will. Three strikes laws are effective because they target these repeat offenders who have proven unable to change their criminal behavior (Johnson, 2005). The mandated 25 years-to-life sentences for third time offenders keep repeat criminals off the street, and the threat of such a long sentence may stop a two-time offenders from committing a third felony (Zimring, Hawkins, Kamin, 2001). Tough-on-crime laws like this have contributed to the nation-wide drop in crime rates over the past decade. Three-strike laws can help reduce the prison population by serving as a deterrent to potential repeat criminals (Johnson, 2005).
In such a way, the implementation of the three strikes law by different states led to quite controversial outcomes. On the one hand, the three strikes law has proved to be beneficial in terms of the introduction of strict punishment measures in relation to criminals, who committed offenses repeatedly. In such a way, the three strikes law has the potential of the prevention of recidivism. In addition, the three strikes law contributes to keeping offenders off the streets. On the other hand, the three strikes law has a number of disadvantages, which make the law the subject to severe criticism from the part of experts as well as the public (Johnson, 2005). In this regard, it is worth mentioning the growth of the prison population. The number of offenders committing crimes grows and the frequency of crimes and the number of offenses increases sentence terms for offenders. However, the three strikes law limits the use of felony regardless of the context of crime. This means that even a minor offense from the part of an offender, who has already got three felonies may provoke the negative impact on the offenders. What is meant here is the fact that the three strikes law focuses on the punishment of offenders but not on their correction. In such a context, it is hardly possible to speak about the prevention of offenses and cases of recidivism. Instead, the strong trend to the wide introduction of the punitive approach to the criminal justice system becomes obvious. At this point, specialists (Zimring, Hawkins, Kamin, 2001) warn against the ineffectiveness of the punitive approach to the modern criminal justice system because this approach leads to the growth of the prison population and increase of the number of cases of recidivism.
Barak, G. (ed.). (2008). Integrative Criminology. Aldershot: Ashgate/Dartmouth.
Braithwaite, J. (1995). “Not Just Deserts. A Republican Theory of Criminal Justice.” Law and Society Review, Vol. 28, No. 4, pp. 765-776.
D’Addesa, D. M. (2003). “The Unconstitutional Interplay of California’s Three Strikes Law and California Penal Code Section 666.” University of Cincinnati Law Review 71
Johnson, J. L. (2005). “Officer Down: Implications of Three Strikes for Public Safety”. Criminal Justice Policy Review 16 (4): 443–460
Zimring, F. E., Hawkins, G., Kamin, S. (2001). Punishment and Democracy: Three Strikes and You’re Out in California. New York: Oxford University Press.
Even before the recent ballot initiative, the clinic’s law students had overturned the life sentences of 26 people, based on newly discovered evidence or inadequate assistance of counsel, as when defense lawyers failed to present evidence of a client’s mental illness.
Asked about the relationship of mental illness and three-strikes prosecutions, Michael Romano, director of the Stanford project, responded, “In my experience, every person who has been sentenced to life in prison for a nonserious, nonviolent crime like petty theft suffers from some kind of mental illness or impairment — from organic brain disorders, to schizophrenia, to mental retardation, to severe P.T.S.D.,” or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Nearly all had been abused as children, he pointed out. All had been homeless for extended periods, and many were illiterate. None had graduated from high school.
In other words, these were discarded people who could be made to bear the brunt of this brutal law without risk of public backlash. Among the more horrifying cases investigated by the Three Strikes Project is that of 55-year-old Dale Curtis Gaines, who suffers from both mental retardation and mental illness. He has never committed a violent crime, but is serving a life sentence for receiving stolen property. His first two strikes, daytime burglaries of empty homes during which he was unarmed, appear to have involved thefts valued at little more than pocket change.
According to court documents, Mr. Gaines’s early childhood was a nightmare, filled with the most savage forms of abuse. His grandmother, a primary care giver, is said to have beaten him when he urinated or defecated in bed — and forced him to eat his feces as punishment. Later, as often happens with mentally impaired adolescents, he began to skip school because he was ashamed that he could not keep up with his classmates. He was often homeless. While serving time for his second crime, he was diagnosed by the prison system itself as both mentally disabled and schizophrenic.
He was clearly too impaired to help with his defense, and at one point simply put a blanket over his head and declined to speak to a doctor who was questioning him. His ability to read is comparable to that of a kindergartner.
At the time of his third strike, for receiving stolen computer equipment, Mr. Gaines was getting Social Security and disability benefits because of mental illness and retardation. His mental health history, readily available in the prison record, would probably have been recognized as a mitigating factor and prevented him from being so harshly sentenced. But, according to court documents, his public defender presented no evidence about his disability.
In 2010, 12 years after Mr. Gaines was convicted, the prosecutor who handled the case but by then had left the district attorney’s office wrote to him in prison, expressing regret and offering help if he wished to appeal. The Stanford students also noticed his case and are now trying to free him.
Mr. Gaines’s story is not unique. And as more cases unfold in court, judges, lawyers and Californians should look back with shame at the injustice the state inflicted on a vulnerable population that often presented little or no danger to the public.Continue reading the main story