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Three Strikes and You’re Out

W. Victoria Lee

Could you imagine being sentenced to a 50-years-to-life term in prison on account of stealing $153.54 worth of kids’ videos to give away as Christmas presents? Leandro Andrade could. As a former home burglar and shoplifter, this California man, like 7,000 other men and women in the past eight years, has hit his third strike and is about to be sent to the cold bench of prison for probably the rest of his life. Cruel and unusual punishment? Maybe. The Supreme Court has begun hearing arguments for the Andrade case, along with the case of Ewing, a crack addict who stole three golf clubs, in early November. What are we talking about? The Three Strikes Law, a legal trend that has been caught by 26 states and the Federal Government ever since California voters approved the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” ballot initiative in 1994,the result of a young girl’s murder by a parolee in the previous year.

“Draconian” is the word used in recent newspaper and magazine articles. Indeed, the law in California doubles the penalty for second-time offender committing a serious felony (such as burglary) and mandates a 25-years-to-life sentence to any third time offender. The highly publicized phrases such as “25 years to life for stealing a $3 magazine” fill the placards in the protesters’ hands, while many lawmakers and supporters insist that these third time offenders are the “scoundrels who have had [their] chances.” Even statistics are telling us different things. Some studies said that the law’s implementation is responsible for a 45 percent drop in the crime rate, while other studies suggest that crime incidents had already begun declining three years prior to the introduction of the law. So how should we feel about the law? Should we join hands with the protesters and fight for those who are in prison for 25 years to life because they walked out of the grocery store with a box of chocolate cookies that they did not pay for, or should we stand by the law supporters, cross our arms, shake our heads, and say to the offenders, “you have had your chances?” Personally, I would do neither, not because neutral ground is a safe place to stay, but because I believe each offender’s case is unique and should not be subjected to a one-size-fit-it-all law.

Those who oppose the law repeatedly emphasize that among the 7,000 or so third-time offenders in the California prison, many are there because they filched a bottle of vitamins, shoplifted a car alarm, created fraud to obtain undeserved food stamps, or just robbed a couple unoccupied houses. Although these crimes are rather “minor and nonviolent,” as one of the opposers wrote in her article, they are crimes nevertheless. How can we be misled by the trivial values of the stolen items ($20 for the vitamins, $25 for the car alarm) or the fact that no one was hurt by the crime? Both the legal system of our society and our own moral judgment define stealing as a wrongdoing. Although in the legal world, punishment for the crime is based on the severity of the wrongdoing, on moral ground, stealing a little is just as wrong as stealing a lot. Inundated by the overemphasis of the triviality of the felonies, we tend to feel sorry for the offenders, side up with them as if they have been wrongfully accused, and forget that was someone’s house, someone’s shop, they were robbing, filching, shoplifting, and stealing from for the third time. Six percent of the criminals alone can conduct sixty percent of the crimes. If one cannot learn the lesson after two times, then one should be locked up to protect others’ right to a minimal crime-infested environment.

Yet for some third time offenders, their running into the law might not be entirely voluntary. Although shoplifters and burglars make up a large percentage (about one third) of the 7,000 third-time offenders, still there are many who are in the prison for receiving stolen goods or for illegal drug use. Not to declare these crimes are more pardonable than the others, but they, along with some thefts, burglaries and yet still other different kinds of felonies, might have a long sad tale behind the individual wrongdoer. It is hard for us to imagine what desperation, depression, or just plain hunger can drive one to do. Three times might seem a lot, especially when we are talking about offending the legal system three times. But to make three mistakes in one lifetime does not seem a lot. Most of us make much more than that in our lives, let alone those who live in places where the environments provide much more opportunities for mistakes to happen.

Not to mention that drug use is as much a cultural problem as it is a legal problem. For these people, whose mistakes happen to tangle with legal matters, to be sent to the cold bench after three strikes is cruel. How can we say to a young drug dealer who came from a drug dealing abusive family and who earns a living with and only knows this illegal profession that he has had his chances? How do we tell a homeless drifter after her third time stealing food from the grocery store that she needs to be locked up for the rest of her life? What we have to understand is that welfare, homeless shelters, as well as other facilities and programs, do not cover all of those who need help. So how can we treat these offenders the same way as we treat those who blatantly refuse to abide by the rule of society?

The truth is, some of the third-time offenders deserve more than two chances and some of them don’t. In this sense, the Third Strike Law is draconian yet fitting for some, yet considerably cruel and disproportional for others. Its intention to provide protection for the rest of the population is definitely laudable, but maybe it is time for us to realize that it does not apply to everyone who unpleasantly runs into law.