Three Strikes Law – Intricacies of A Tough On Crime Policy

Being built on the principles of deterrence, incapacitaion and just deserts, ‘three strikes law’ is often conceived as the answer to the crime problems in America. In fact, it was the largest penal experiment in the history of American criminal jurisprudence, aimed to act as a check on increasing crime rates in America either by incarcerating habitual offenders or deterring them from committing crimes in future. This study seeks to evaluate one of the most tough crime policies for the time being, by looking into both its merits and demerits and further, attempts to analyse the influence and relevance of American three strike laws on Indian criminal justice system.

“Give people a second chance, but not a third” -H. Jackson Brown Jr.

Three Strikes Law

In early to mid-1990s, the United States witnessed a peak in its crime rate. This was further triggered by the killings of two young girls in California and it was followed by public campaigns led by the fathers of these girls for a tough sentencing law for offenders committing violent crimes repeatedly. In response to the public outcry for a harsher deterrent law, the federal government enacted three strikes laws in 1995. Washington was the first state to adopt a three strikes policy in 1993 followed by California in 1994 and now it exists in some form in 28 states in US.

Three strikes law, now being the underlying principle for criminal penalties in America, traces its origin from the rules of baseball game, where there is a batter against whom if three strikes are recorded, he is stroked out. According to the law, if a person has one previous serious or violent felony conviction, the sentence for any new felony conviction is twice the term otherwise required under law for the new conviction and such offenders are referred to as “second strikers.” If a person has two or more previous serious or violent felony convictions, the sentence for any new felony conviction is life imprisonment with the minimum term being 25 years and such offenders convicted under this provision are frequently referred to as “third strikers.” Under all the three-strike laws mandatory life imprisonment without parole is prescribed.

The Perks of a Baseball Rule

As a rule which takes an offender’s criminal history into account, three strikes law emerged as a weapon to deal and control the ever increasing rate of crimes. The main objective was to reduce recidivism through both incapacitation and deterrence as its proponents believed that the most incorrigible criminals deserves particularly punitive sentences. Moreover, because young adults remain responsible for the majority of the crimes, any deterrent effect of this group should significantly reduce the crime rate.

Being a potent law-and-order metaphor, three strikes law reaped its benefits by removing potentially violent offenders from the general population and thereby keeping the people safer. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 77% of all prisoners are arrested again within five years of release. Further, the deterrent effect of three strikes laws can be understood best by analyzing the law’s impact on crime in California, where in 1998, the office of Attorney General Office claimed, since it enacted its three strikes law in 1994, crime has dropped 26.9 percent, which translates to 815,000 fewer crimes. Thus, the deterrent effect of the rule ‘three strikes, you’re out’ in California proved its purpose as criminal statistics was brought down and courts could establish speedy hearings.

Criticism of Three Strikes Law

However, the most catchy ‘three strikes’ metaphor, when moved away from the baseball court to the Criminal Court system, it lost some of the fairness which the rule usually implies as the inconsistencies in its application turned it into form of a draconian law. In spite of the claims of its deterrent effect on the other hand, the law has been facing large criticisms for the following reasons:

1) the critics point out that these laws have eventually lost its significance as most of the serious violent crimes are not calculated or premeditated. Those crimes happen in the heat of passion, where the prospective punishment of life imprisonment cannot deter the crimes. Hence, it is a blind law which deliberately ignores the real causes of the offenders criminal act.

2) With this law, the offenders become more likely to kill victims, witnesses, and police officers to avoid a life sentence and hence likely to spur a dramatic increase in violence.

3) The Courts are choked with backlogs as the defendants may gamble on a trial rather than plead guilty to a crime that could be a step to a life sentence and thereby causing time consuming trials.

4) In a justice system where the racial, gender and class disparities are rampant in the implementation of any law, the laws like three strikes laws will make the life of the underprivileged even worse. The United States has already been witnessing such inequitable pronouncements as the Blacks in America are receiving proportionately more three strikes sentencing.

5) In California, it was reported that some people was awarded mandatory life sentences for non-violent felonies such as stealing VCR’s, shoplifting a bottle of vitamins, etc. When petty crimes qualify for such a harsh sentence, it is more of a reflection on the society than the criminal involved.

There is, of course, something wrong with a society that allows the perpetrators of multiple violent crimes to live in freedom. Nonetheless, while proposing a criminal law based on three strikes law, it must be established that whether the positive impacts of such a rule overweigh its multiple gaps in practice and if it is possible to apply a provision of such criminal gravity without being unfair or unjust. However, with the introduction of major reforms in 2012, California’s three strikes law has made an attempt to heal the wounds of criminal injustice caused by a mishandled three strikes law, even though its scars may remain incurable.

Striker’s Laws and Indian Criminal Jurisprudence

Though not identical as exists in the United States, somewhat of sue generis ‘strike laws’ have been introduced in India for sexual offences and other socially abhorrent crimes. The examples are Section 354C and 376E of Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013 and Section 14 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012. These severe second conviction laws, declaring India’s “tough on crime” policy, implicates the widening sphere of Indian legal system to accommodate a provision like ‘three strikes law’ in future.

According to the Report of the Committee on Crime Statistics by Ministry of Statistics, concerning the global criminal statistics, India still sees relatively higher numbers. Moreover, rape being one of the most heinous crimes, is amongst India’s highest recorded criminal acts outnumbering countless felonies and the sentences given to such offenders hardly ever followed the scales of justice. It is the need of the hour in a country like India, where animals are safer than women, to bring about stringent revolutionary offender’s laws. If implemented, the main aim of such law should be to eradicate such criminal who don’t fear the law and must follow the principle of just deserts. However, it is again reiterated that, a tough on crime policy like three strikes policy, if not applied properly might turn to be a draconian law, especially in a system where corruption and various disparities are rampant and, as always, prevention is better than cure.

This article is authored by Anitta Varghese, Pursuing 3rd Year BA LLB at St. Joseph’s College of Law, Bengaluru.

Also Read – Tackling Increasing Rate of Crime: Let Us Cure the Cause

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