Three Strikes Law on the African-American Community
Three Strikes legislation, which imposes sentencing enhancement on repeat offenders, often culminating with mandatory life sentences for third-time offenders, has gained popularity throughout the United States. The legislation began in California, where two highly publicized murders committed by convicted felons prompted an outcry against allowing recidivists to return to the community. California did see a decrease in crime rates following its institution of the Three Strikes policy, though there is considerable debate about whether the Three Strikes laws were responsible for that decline. Many other states adopted the legislation, so that about half of all states now have three strikes legislation. While these laws may not necessarily have the desired deterrence effect on crime, the general consensus appears to be that they are not harmful to society; therefore, even if they cannot be proven to be helpful, they should remain in place. However, the reality is that these three-strike laws have had a crippling impact on much of the African-American community. This paper will describe the policy issues and historical background behind the habitual offender legislation; describe the policy; discuss how the policy was enacted; describe the current state of the policy; and finally discuss the politics of the policy including the implications of the policy for the African-American community.
Policy issues and historical background
One of the most significant problems in criminal justice is the recidivist offender. "These offenders are considered unresponsive to incarceration as a means of behavior modification and undeterred by the prospect of serving time in prison" (Brown, & Jolivette, 2005). Some might wonder why extended periods of incarceration would be considered a threat to a group that is typically considered immune to the threat of prison. However, the three-strikes policy is not built solely around the premise that these offenders would be deterred by the threat of longer prison terms, though that threat is thought to provide some additional deterrence. Instead, it is predicated on the idea that longer prison sentences would prevent crime, at least in mainstream society, by removing these repeat offenders from society for longer periods of time " (Brown, & Jolivette, 2005).
The direct catalyst for the three strikes legislation was a crime committed by a repeat felon. On June 29, 1992, Kimber Reynolds, an 18-year-old girl, was shot and killed by repeat offender as she left a restaurant. Her father, Mike Reynolds, sought a solution for the revolving door of California's prison system and approached Republican Bill Jones to sponsor the bill. Jones was joined by Jim Costa, a democrat, as co-sponsor of the bill (Jones, 1999). Kimber's murder was close in time to the murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, who was killed by a paroled felon, and citizens were ready to support the idea of enhanced convictions for repeat offenders (Murphy, 2000). In fact, since the legislation was first approved in California, it is important to realize it had direct citizen approval and participation, because California's legislative process involves direct votes on propositions.
The policy was created specifically to address the issue of crimes by habitual offenders. The magnitude of the threat was not ever thoroughly defined, though recidivism levels in California, particularly after a second offense, were high, as they were throughout the United States. However, crime levels were already dropping at the time the legislation was written, and the public perception of an increasing danger was not supported by statistics that reveal a decreasing danger. Theoretically, the affected populations for the policy included the class of all potential crime victims and all potential criminals, with there being an obvious overlap in those groups. Prior to the institution of the three-strike legislation, there really had not been a concentrated effort to try to solve the problem of the habitual offender. Unfortunately, it is difficult to assess the efficacy of prior programs or the Three Strikes policy because other factors, such as the economy, drug use in neighborhoods, and other social factors, will impact criminality alongside official criminal justice policy.
There is some misconception among people that the three strikes law means a mandatory life sentence for a third-time felony offender, which is not exactly the case. Instead, the three strikes law requires sentence enhancement for a repeat offender. "If a person has one previous serious or violent felony conviction, the sentence for any new felony conviction (not just a serious or violent felony) is twice the term otherwise required under law for the new conviction. Offenders sentenced by the courts under this provision are often referred to as 'second strikers'" (Brown, & Jolivette, 2005). Third-strike felony offenders, in other words, those with two or more serious or violent felony convictions, receive a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment with a minimum 25-year term (Brown, & Jolivette, 2005). In addition, the state requires consecutive, not concurrent, sentencing for multiple offenses committed by felony recidivists, with no limit to the number of felonies that can be included in the consecutive sentence (Brown, & Jolivette, 2005).
First, the court cannot consider the time between the crime for which the offender is being sentenced and the prior offenses; "serious and violent felony offenses committed many years before a new offense can be counted as prior strikes" (Brown, & Jolivette, 2005). In addition, the court cannot grant probation for a new felony and cannot suspend imposition of a sentence for a prior offense; instead, the "defendant must be committed to state prison and is not eligible for diversion" (Brown, & Jolivette, 2005). However, that does not mean that there is no room for discretion or rewards for good behavior. First, "Prosecutors can move to dismiss, or 'strike,' prior felonies from consideration during sentencing in the 'furtherance of justice'" (Brown, & Jolivette, 2005). Furthermore, once in prison, defendants can reduce their time spent in prison through good-time behavior including work and education, though they have greater limits on their good-time credits, as they can only limit their time served by up to one-fifth of the original sentence in contrast with non-recidivist offenders who can get good-time credit for up to one-half of the original sentence (Brown, & Jolivette, 2005).
The policy is no longer a proposed policy, but one that has been implemented for several years. The legislation is not a stand-alone program, but was expected to significantly increase the costs for the criminal justice system, not simply in prison costs, but also pre-trial costs as habitual offenders would be considered a greater flight risk, given their higher sentence options. However, in California, the program has actually cost less money for the criminal justice system than was originally predicted. The policy's intended consequence was to reduce crime among the civilian population. However, its unintended consequence may have been the further marginalization of the African-American community through long-term incarceration of so many of its members.
There was significant public support for the Three Strikes law, which was seemingly driven by the high-profile murders of two young girls by convicted felons. The vocalized reason to support habitual offender legislation is to increase community safety. However, studies demonstrate that community safety is actually a secondary concern. Instead, people are more concerned about the broader social context in which they perceive a decline in morality, and increased criminal behavior or other rule-breaking is seen as evidence of that moral decline. The result is that they wish to punish rule-breakers. Recidivist criminal offenders are the ultimate rule-breakers; therefore, there is support for enhanced punishment for rule-breakers, even if those enhancements seem to belie the procedural protections that form the basis of many of those rules (Tyler & Boeckmann, 1997). Therefore, when one looks at habitual offender legislation as a way of punishing rule breakers, and considers that African-Americans, as a small minority with little participation in the rule-making process, are more likely to be rule breakers than those who can meaningfully participate in legislation creation, it should come as no surprise that the African-American community has been disproportionately impacted by Three Strikes legislation.
In fact, there has been no significant major opposition to the legislation, which has been re-approved by the California citizenry, and those who do openly oppose the laws are often labeled pro-criminal or pro-crime by proponents of the laws. Therefore, the public and media portrayals of opponents have been somewhat harsh, particularly because many of them are either former criminals or relatives of former criminals, who makes them appears less credible. As a result, much of the challenges to the policy have not been held in the public domain, but have occurred as a series of legal challenges to the policy.
The policy process of the Three-Strikes law has largely been conducted in the court room. There have been a number of legal challenges to the law, most of them suggesting that it is unconstitutional in some way. The main challenge has been that the law violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because it removes the requirement of proportionality from…