Should we gut ‘3 Strikes’ to save money?

In Olympia, everyone is trying to save money. Ideas that were unheard of a year ago are now getting serious consideration. And that’s good.

But not all ideas to save money are good ones. Take the legislation pushed by State Sen. Adam Kline, who represents central Seattle. He’s proposing Senate Bill 5292, which would dilute our state’s “Three Strikes, You’re Out” law by removing Second Degree Robbery (which is robbery using violence or the threat of violence) as a “strike.” It’s retroactive, so nearly 30 percent of the state’s three strikers would be immediately released. Another 20 percent would have their sentences reduced, regardless of how violent or unrepentant they are.

Some background.

Three Strikes, You’re Out was an initiative passed by nearly 76 percent of the voters in 1993. It was the nation’s first such law and was written to put two types of criminals behind bars: violent thugs and those who committed lesser, but more numerous offenses over and over again. In order to strike out, an inmate has to be convicted of a Class A felony or a violent Class B felony on three separate occasions.

During the campaign, opponents predicted that more than 100 inmates would strike out annually, packing the prisons and busting the budget. Supporters, predicted that only about 50 would “strike out” (disclosure time: I was one of those supporters, as the co-author of the initiative and leader of the campaign).

But only about 20 criminals a year are striking out. It turns out that the initiative has had a marvelous side effect: felons with one or two strikes are fearful of “striking out” and are either shaping up or shipping out (as in, out of state). Violent crime has plummeted since its passage.

The law does allow the governor to grant clemency in individual cases where Three Strikers have redeemed themselves behind bars. One such request, for Stevan Dozier who had three Robbery 2 convictions in the 1980s and early 1990s, is on the governor’s desk. Mr. Dozier earned his shot at clemency through good behavior. But for some people in Olympia, Mr. Dozier shouldn’t have to earn his way out at all.

Supporters of SB 5292 insist that Robbery 2 simply shouldn’t count as a “strike.” The Seattle Times weighed in last Sunday in favor of Senator Kline’s bill, arguing that a life sentence “is not proportional to the crime. It is not necessary for the protection of the public.”

For one Robbery 2 conviction, I agree. That’s why you have to be convicted of a strike three separate times (a robbery spree counts as one strike). You’re not being punished for one robbery, you’re being punished for a pattern of criminal behavior that includes that robbery. There are three strikers who have Robbery 2 convictions, but also murder, rape, kidnapping and Assault 1 convictions. Do we instantly reduce their sentences? According to SB 5292, the answer is “yes.” And 81 of them walk out immediately.

Are these the kind of guys you want to let out of prison if you’re looking to save money by trimming the inmate rolls? I hope not. But you might want to contact your legislators quickly and let them know what you think. The legislative hotline number is 1-800-562-6000 or reach them online at leg.wa.gov.

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