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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Three Strikes and You're Out- California's Answer to Violent Crime

In my earlier blog on texting while driving, I briefly wrote about well intended laws that become impracticle to enforce. In California, the legislature enacted the three strikes law. It sounded great on its face- put serious and violent criminals away for life. Politicians loved it. In reality, it became problematic to enforce. As a prosecutor I had cases where an individual committed a robbery in the late 70's, went to jail and remained crime free for years. In 2002, the same individual made a poor decision and steals some clothing from a local store. The case comes to my desk with all strikes alleged, meaning the robbery incident from the 70's is alleged as prior and serious violent felonies. As charged, if convicted, this person was going away for 25 to life for a nonviolent offense of stealing clothes.

The prosecutor has the ability to 'strike' the strikes, and make the theft a straight misdemeanor or felony punishable by much less time. Here is the dilemma: a prosecutor is suppose to be tough on crime, while also acting 'in the interests of justice'. Do you strike the strikes and risk your career path at the Office and risk being viewed as soft on crime? But wait, the judge can also strike the strikes. Prosecutor tells defense attorney- ask the judge to strike the strikes. Defense attorney replies that this judge won't strike strikes. Defense attorney now has to find a judge to strike the strikes. As time went on, cases had to be looked at on an individual basis to determine if the case was appropriate for the three strikes law. Meanwhile politicians stated they supported the bill, but never saw how it actually was implemented in the everyday caseload of a prosecutor and defense attorney.

Violent crime is terrible. People should be punished appropriately for their actions. However, simply enacting a broad base law that doesn't take into account not just a person's criminal history, but also the years they remained crime free and the facts of the current case, whether violent or not, is not the answer. It sounded great on it's face, even had a great name, '3 strikes and you are out!'. In reality, difficult to manage.

North Carolina by comparison has the habitual felon law. More on this in the next post.


posted by Carilyn Ibsen at


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