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Debate: Three strikes law

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Should so-called "three-strikes" laws be repealed?

Background and Context of Debate:

Early in the 1980’s, politicians in the USA became concerned that the criminal justice system had become inconsistent across the country. Similar crimes were being punished with dramatically different sentences, even though the same laws applied. Accordingly, Congress began to craft rules for mandatory prison sentences in federal cases; these rules were intended to ensure that similar crimes would be punished in similar ways, no matter where these cases were tried. Many state legislatures drafted similar rules for lower courts. Over time, mandatory sentences in state courts evolved to include “three-strikes” rules: if a newly convicted criminal had a record of two prior felony (serious crime) convictions, the judge had to impose the maximum sentence for the third crime. (There are some variations in the laws from state to state.) There has been growing concern, however, that the punishments imposed by three-strikes laws are not simply too severe, but also unconstitutional. In November 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a constitutional challenge to the three-strikes law adopted in California in 1994.

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Argument #1

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Yes

One of the fundamental principles of criminal justice is that the punishment should fit the crime. That principle is abandoned when a life sentence is automatically imposed for a third felony - whether that felony is serious and violent, or minor and non-violent. Because there is only one sentence possible for many kinds of crimes, it follows that the sentence does not necessarily correspond to the seriousness of the offence.

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No

It is a primary obligation of the criminal justice system to establish clear and certain penalties for crime. The three-strikes laws offer such clarity, and their mandatory nature makes punishment certain. These laws prevent inconsistency in the criminal justice system.

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Argument #2

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Yes

It often happens that the third felony - that is, the one that triggers the automatic sentence - is relatively minor. For example, a life sentence has been imposed on someone for the attempted shoplifting of videotapes. A life sentence for such a crime is "cruel and unusual", and, as such, is forbidden by the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution.

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No

Historically, judges have abused the discretion that they have been given by the criminal justice system. Too often, judges have imposed light sentences on criminals, even when those criminals have been repeat offenders. The mandatory sentences imposed by three-strikes laws ensure that recidivists (repeat offenders) are punished appropriately.

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Argument #3

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Yes

Historically, judges have had discretionary powers when sentencing criminals; this practice recognizes that sentencing should take into account the circumstances of the crime, the character of the criminal, and the amount of harm caused by the crime. Mandatory sentences rob judges of those discretionary powers that are properly theirs. Indeed, mandatory sentences are imposed, in effect, by the politicians of the legislative branch of government - thus violating the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers outlined in the Constitution.

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No

The fundamental purpose of the criminal justice system is to protect the rights and the safety of law-abiding citizens. But these citizens are not protected by "revolving door justice", which allows criminals back on the street after repeat offenses. Three-strikes laws remove repeat offenders from society, and prevent them from committing further crimes.

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Argument #4

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Yes

Defenders of the three-strikes laws claim that these laws have a powerful deterrent effect, and reduce the occurrence of crime. Statistics show, however, that recidivism has not been reduced by the presence of such laws, and the general reduction in crime, when and where it has occurred, is due to effective policing, rather than to harsh sentencing.

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No

Since three-strikes laws have been introduced across the nation, crime has dropped dramatically.

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Argument #5

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Yes

The three-strikes laws are, in effect, ex post facto laws: that is, criminal sentences can take into account - as first and second strikes - crimes that were committed before the law was passed. Moreover, the imposition of mandatory maximum sentences because of past history constitutes "double jeopardy": criminals are being punished again for crimes for which they already served time.

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No

Opponents of three-strikes laws claim that these laws give criminals no chance to rehabilitate and redeem themselves. But studies have shown that rehabilitation is highly unlikely for recidivists. Someone who has committed three felonies is not likely to reform; rather, it is the destiny of the recidivist to keep committing crimes.

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Argument #6

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Yes

One effect of mandatory sentencing, and of three-strikes laws in particular, is the rapid growth of the prison population. The United States now locks up a higher proportion of its population than any comparable developed nation, yet many of those imprisoned for a great many years are non-violent offenders convicted of relatively minor drug offences. All of this comes at a very high cost to the taxpayer.

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No

The growth of the prison population has occurred alongside the decline in the crime rate; the two are clearly linked. Because those imprisoned under three-strikes laws are habitual criminals, the extra cost of holding them in prison has to balanced against the economic savings to society from fewer robberies, burglaries, vandalism, violent crime (resulting in expensive hospital treatment), drug addicts, etc.

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