Nation of Criminals: Three Strikes on the Way Out?

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WASHINGTON -- Imagine getting sentenced to life in prison for stealing a slice of pizza. It has happened under three strikes laws.

They were designed to get violent criminals off the streets, but some say they're creating a dangerous mess.

The United States puts more people behind bars than any other country. More than 10 percent of those sitting in American prisons face life sentences. In fact, some call life the new death sentence where golf club thieves get the same punishment as armed bank robbers.

Three strikes laws became popular in the 1990s after two young girls were murdered by criminals with long rap sheets. President Bill Clinton even addressed the need for the laws during his 1994 State of the Union speech.
           
"Those who commit repeated violent crimes should be told, 'When you commit a third violent crime, you will be put away and put away for good - three strikes and you are out,'" he said in the 1994 address.
           
The federal government and dozens of states rushed to add the law to their books that calls for automatic life in prison sentences for criminals convicted of a third felony.

Why They Don't Work
           
The idea was to get violent, repeat criminals off the streets, but in many cases a person can be locked up for life for committing non-violent, even laughable crimes.

For instance, in California, there are people in prison on their third strike for stealing a pair of socks, taking change from a parked car, shoplifting a pair of work gloves, and even stealing a chocolate chip cookie from a restaurant.
           
"Three strikes laws don't work," Marc Mauer, executive director for The Sentencing Project, told CBN News.

"The problem with these laws is it's a one-size-fits-all policy and the reason we have judges is to consider individual circumstances because no two crimes or offenders are exactly alike," he said.

Tying Judges' Hands

In most states, judges find their hands tied under three strikes laws, with no freedom to consider the circumstances of the crime or the defendant.

In the case of Rayvell Finch, a 22-year-old sentenced to life for heroin possession under Louisiana's three strikes law, the judge called his sentence, "clearly excessive and designed to cause needless suffering."

According to The Sentencing Project, more than 10,000 people serving life have been convicted of a non-violent crime and even when parole is an option, criminologist Dr. Fran Buntman says there's a hesitation.

"I think they're afraid they'll be the unlucky person who supports a policy that allows someone to get out of prison who then because of that policy ends up murdering someone or raping somebody," Buntman said.

However, she thinks lawmakers who want to be tough on crime are starting to see the benefits of being smart on crime.

"What we need in our sentencing policies is far finer-tuned approaches that emphasize empirical evidence and that emphasize our values in terms that we'd rather invest in schools than prisons," Buntman said.

Unlikely Allies

Public support is building for reforming the way criminals are sentenced. It's also uniting some unlikely allies in Washington.

Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., are teaming up with conservative Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, to sponsor a bill that would do away with mandatory federal sentences for non-violent offenders.

Locking people up for life isn't cheap. Mauer said, conservatively, it costs about $25,000 per year to keep someone in prison.

And when they become older that number can jump to $70,000, and as inmates age, he says their threat to society drops considerably.

"If there's one thing we know in criminology, it's that people do tend to age out of crime," he said.

However, the reality is that one in nine people in prison are serving life sentences. Dr. Buntman believes it's a moral issue and credits Christians with bringing attention to the debate.

"Committing crime is not moral, but neither is over-punishing. And we have to find the right balance between the morality of punishment and the immorality of over punishment," she said.

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Jennifer Wishon

Jennifer Wishon

CBN News White House Correspondent

Jennifer Wishon is the White House correspondent for CBN News based in the network’s Washington, D.C. Bureau.  Before taking over the White House beat, Jennifer covered Capitol Hill and other national news, from the economy to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Follow Jennifer on Twitter @JenniferWishon and "like" her at Facebook.com/JennWishon.