(MintPress) – The state of Massachusetts is taking a throwback approach to its justice system by revitalizing a once-popular three strikes policy which takes aim at repeat offenders. A three strikes law typically imposes extended prison terms or life sentences for those who are convicted of three or more criminal offenses. Critics of the law, however, say that it has not improved public safety, it is an unreasonable punishment because it taints any chances of a fair trial and is not a cost-effective approach reducing crime.
Despite the criticisms, Massachusetts’ Democrat governor Deval Patrick signed the legislation, dubbed Melissa’s Bill, as a reactionary measure after a Massachusetts teacher named Melissa Gosule was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a repeat offender in 1999. In signing the bill into law, Patrick adds Massachusetts to a list of 26 other states that have some form of repeat-offender laws. But the measure also adds an unprecedented amendment to that of other states: Sentencing for non-violent drug offenders would be reformed to allow nearly 600 prisoners to be paroled, a move in which Patrick says will save the state millions of dollars.
“I still believe there is a necessary role for judicial discretion when it comes to sentencing, and many of the advocates of this bill have pledged to support that next year,” Patrick said at a ceremony to unveil the legislation. “I understand the concerns of those who worry we have taken judgment out of the justice system, and the pain and frustration of the families of victims of violent crime.”
Growing concern, fewer homicides
By 1994, Three Strikes laws were abuzz across the nation as then-President Bill Clinton touted them in one of his State of the Union addresses. But the bills caused a new trend to settle like a cloud over society: Incarceration rates increased more in the 1990s than any other previous decade, and today, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As of 2009, states with the lowest incarceration rates – Maine, Minnesota and New Hampshire – did not have Three Strikes laws.
But the laws came during a time when homicides fell 33 percent between 1990 and 1998, according to the Justice Policy Institute (JPI). The institute argues that media fueled the population’s fear and urged it to become a political issue. Despite the decline in homicides, coverage of homicides on ABC, NBC and CBS evening newscasts increased 473 percent during the 8-year period.
The resulting increase of incarceration and imprisonment attitude in America has created expansive overcrowding issues in the country’s prisons, and Massachusetts is no exception. At one medium-security prison in Massachusetts, nearly 1,000 prisoners are crammed into a facility originally built for 568. The state’s maximum security facility houses more than 300 prisoners than it was originally intended for.
Because of those trends and the incarceration-happy tendencies of the U.S., Tracy Velazquez, the executive director at the JPI, said the state’s new legislation will likely doom it.
“By creating a justice system based on offense rather than actual risk, you’re going to end up sweeping more people into the system who don’t need to be there,” Velazquez said. “It looks to us like it’s more of a public relations measure than a public safety measure.”
The Presley Center for Crime and Justice Studies at the University of California Riverside found that California’s law has done nothing to deter crime, and has perhaps impacted those who commit nonviolent crimes more. A 2005 study from the Legislative Analyst’s Office found that out of 7,575 inmates serving time in California for a third strike, 46 percent were convicted of a nonviolent or non-serious offense.
“If this very expensive policy isn’t really impacting crime, what are we doing?” said the study’s director, Robert Parker. “Why are we spending all of this money, why are we cutting health, welfare and education repeatedly to fund an expensive system that doesn’t deliver on what its promises were?”
Complaints have been made that the Three Strikes system in place is a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibiting “cruel and unusual punishment.” But a Supreme Court of the United States ruling in 2003 upheld the states’ Three Strikes rules, saying that violent crimes and recidivism rates justified the enhanced punishment scale.
A California case study
California was one of the early pioneers of Three Strikes legislation, but has an amendment on November’s ballot that would reduce the number of older prisoners by as many as 3,000 by reducing their sentences for certain crimes, as older prisoners are far less likely to reoffend. As California’s Three Strikes rule stands, a person convicted of a felony in California who has two or more prior convictions for certain offenses must be sentenced to at least 25-years-to-life in state prison, even if the last offense was nonviolent.
California has since been pinched by growing expenses to keep prisoners locked away. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that it costs, on average, $68,000 a year to house an inmate over the age of 55 because of increased demand for medical care. California has an estimated 14,000 prisoners over the age of 55.
The state of Louisiana has already begun reducing the sentences for inmates when they reach the age of 60 in a program they call “elderly parole.” The ACLU touted the program as being cost-effective and sensible to inmates who demonstrate low recidivism rates.
“Such laws allow states to safely depopulate their prisons of the elderly and save on incarceration costs while simultaneously not forcing aging prisoners into homelessness by ensuring prisoners must elect to apply for parole,” the ACLU said.
Across the U.S., estimates suggest that states spend around $500 million to implement Three Strikes policies. The system has also been criticized for racial disparities and judges having a racial bias when determining the length of incarceration. In California, blacks make up 3 percent of the total population but account for around 33 percent of second-strikers and 44 percent of third-strikers in the state’s prison system.
Around the world
Globally, New Zealand implements a Three Strikes law very similar to that of the U.S. In 2010, the country’s parliament voted to initiate the rule out of fears that the parole system was being taken advantage of. Police Minister Judith Collins said the measure specifically targets repeat offenders of violent crimes who have high recidivism rates after parole.
“With this Bill the Government is sending a strong message that we are serious when we say that parole is a privilege, not a right,” Collins said in 2010. “Parole is a privilege that will not be available to those who fail to take heed of warnings and continue to commit serious violent crimes.”
New Zealand counts 40 serious violent crimes toward the Three Strike rule that carries a maximum of seven years in prison or more, depending on the offense.
JPI has expressed concern about the continued acceptance of excessive prison sentences from governments that are battling their own budget shortfalls. The institute says a growing number of voters are realizing that prison is not the only punishment for a crime.
“Public opinion around crime and punishment has shifted significantly,” the institute said. “Poll respondents are increasingly supportive of a more balanced approach to crime than in the past.”