Exemplification Essay: Three-Strikes Law is a Mindless Response to Crime

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In 1983, a young man named Michael was brought before a Pennsylvania court on a charge of armed robbery: he stole $50 from a taxi driver using a toy gun. A few days later he was arrested and was subsequently convicted. Although the trial judge sentenced Michael to 6 months in prison and required that he repay the $50, the prosecutor demanded the 5 year minimum sentence required by state law. The trial judge ruled the mandatory sentencing law unconstitutional, and Michael served his prison time and repaid the money. Four years later, the state supreme court ordered the trial judge to sentence Michael to 5 years in prison. The trial judge refused and resigned. The judge to whom the case was reassigned permitted Michael to remain free pending another appeal to the state supreme court. Michael realized the futility of his cause in court and quietly disappeared, and he remains at large today.

Recently, one of the most popular proposals in the effort to get tough on crime has been the "three-strikes-and-you're-out" proposal. This law, which is already in effect in Washington state and California, requires that offenders convicted of three violent crimes be sentenced to life in prison without parole. This proposal has received broad-based support from federal and state politicians including President Bill Clinton, Senator Bob Dole, and Governor Mario Cuomo. The law is based on the idea that the majority of felonies are committed by 6% of "hard core" criminals, and that crime can be reduced by getting these criminals off the streets. Unfortunately, the proposal fails to take into account several major flaws in the law and its implementation.

The first problem the proposal is its principle of removing judicial discretion, severely hindering a judge's ability to make the punishment fit the crime. One man in Washington is faced with life in prison if convicted of his third felony: stealing $120 from a sandwich shop by putting his finger in his pocket and pretending to have a gun. His prior two convictions were for similar crimes. While it is certainly true that some incorrigible felons deserve life in prison, it is patently unfair to create a sweeping standard that would force the courts to sentence offenders to life imprisonment for relatively minor crimes. The three-strikes law gives a judge no discretion in cases like that of the Washington man, or Michael.

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