How 'three strikes' legislation fails

A bad pitch
By EDITORIAL  |  January 4, 2012


Despite evidence that "three strikes" mandatory sentencing laws don't work, are punishingly expensive for taxpayers, and make an already unfair criminal-justice system even more irrational and racist, the Massachusetts legislature seems hell-bent on enacting one.

This is an understandably emotional and predictably political response to the shooting murder of Woburn police officer John Maguire last year by a career criminal who was on the street because of the gross negligence of the state parole board.

In the wake of Maguire's tragic slaying, Governor Deval Patrick acted with swift deliberation. Patrick cashiered the incompetents responsible for the decision to parole the gunman, Dominic Cinelli. Cinelli, himself killed in the shootout, was a repeat offender and former parole violator who had been serving three concurrent life sentences.

In addition to a radical personnel change at the parole board, the governor administratively overhauled its policies and practices.

As sweeping as these actions were, they obviously did not stanch the political desire to avenge Maguire's death — as if that were even possible.

The state of Washington passed the nation's first no-exceptions "three strikes" law in 1993. Since then, 24 states have adopted similar measures that range from much stiffer parole requirements to committing repeat offenders to life in prison.

These laws may be emotionally satisfying to the families of victims, and they allow legislators to pound their chests as if they were doing something meaningful. But reality shows that not only are "three strikes" provisions useless, they often make situations worse.

It's true that as much as 28 percent of career criminals may be dissuaded from further illegal activity by "three strikes." It's also true, however, that the practice emboldens another 20 percent of that cohort to create more serious, more violent crimes.

Can anyone call that progress?

There is a huge body of national evidence that demonstrates these laws fall disproportionately on the poor, on the uneducated, and upon minority communities.

Medical evidence cited by essentially conservative, establishmentarian groups such as the American Bar Association suggests that the human brain does not attain maturity until a person reaches his 20s, thus making many young offenders prone to reckless — even destructive — behavior.

Even if one were to table the essential vileness of "three strikes" legislation, Massachusetts cannot afford it.

Already, our prisons are 40 percent over capacity.

It will cost taxpayers somewhere between $75 million and $125 million to shoulder this "get tough and throw away the key" approach.

And Massachusetts is already paying $1 billion annually in prison costs.

Mississippi, a politically red and socially conservative state if ever there was one, has saved $450 million and reduced its prison population by 22 percent by reserving new prison construction for truly violent criminals.

South Carolina and Kentucky have also blazed new trails in less expensive, more effective incarceration by adopting more humane policies: shorter sentences and alternatives to prison for non-violent crimes.

Surely Massachusetts can learn from this record.

The Phoenix urges the House and State Senate to take the time to get up to speed with the latest thinking on criminal-justice and prison reform.

Make policy from the brain, not the gut.

If, however, the legislature persists in pursuing this unfair, ineffective, and unaffordable measure, then the governor must vow to veto it.

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