Today’s Courant has this powerful piece by Richard Rapaport about the zero tolerance and three-strike frenzy whipping through Connecticut.
Welcome to ZT Connecticut. “ZT,” if you don’t know, stands for zero tolerance. It is a philosophy and mindset invoked to justify actions ranging from the expulsion of students for bringing alcohol-based mouthwash to school, to campaigns to pass “three strikes” laws in response to last month’s heinous murders in Cheshire.
Culled from the engineering lexicon, the slogan “zero tolerance” was trotted out in 1973 as Watergate’s noose tightened and Nixon Justice Department officials needed a tough-sounding anti-crime slogan. In the ’80s, the Navy adopted ZT to add rhetorical muscle to a purge of seagoing potheads.
From there, ZT entered civilian drug enforcement and then locked its tentacles around the justice system in the guise of “zero tolerance for crime.”
This same ZT sub-species has been roused from slumber this summer in Connecticut to induce normally even-keeled citizens to jump on the “three strikes” bandwagon, and to create a platform for those who see no shame in advancing their own social agenda in the face of the tragedy in Cheshire.
So I did a simple search for three strikes laws on Google and found the following:
- This law review article entitled “A problem in emotive Due Process: California’s Three Strikes Law” authored by Prof. Samuel Pillsbury, which states its goal as: “I do not purport to present here a full legal argument that lawyers or courts might use to overturn California’s three Strikes law or other similar statutes. The essay does not attempt the extended historical and doctrinal analysis necessary for such a legal brief. Instead it presents a part—albeit an important part—of this argument, asserting that Three Strikes represents a radical and unwise departure from traditional sentencing procedures that provide important emotive safeguards against penal excess.
- This report from the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy authored by Greg Jones, Michael Connelly, Ph.D., and Kate Wagner in 2001, which concludes
- This report by prison policy titled “Three Strikes Laws: Five Years Later” which concludes:
- This ABA publication.
- This research brief from the Rand Corporation on California’s three strikes law.
“According to experts “three strikes” laws have not had a significant impact on reducing crime. Many studies have shown that reduced crime rates cannot be significantly attributed to the “three strikes” laws (Beres & Griffith, 1998; Stolzenberg and D’Alessio, 1997; Turner, S., 2000). To understand the entire picture, you must take into account other changes that have been occurring including an improved economy, changing drug markers, demographic changes, and strategic policing (King & Mauer, 2001).
In terms of deterrence, the evidence suggests that “three strikes” policy has had modest to little effects. The main objective of this policy, to incarcerate violent offenders, has been neglected for the most part. Most offenders receiving sentences under three strikes have been drug, property, or other non-violent types of offenders. In California, the DOC reported that 57.9% of third strike cases involved non-violent offenses as were 69% of second strike cases (King & Mauer, 2001).
So the question remains is “three strikes” a sensible policy? The majority of the research presents a negative view of the policy, however, some researchers point out that it is difficult to determine because of the downward crime trend occurring nationally and other economic changes taking place since the early 1990s. One consistent projection is that “three strikes” laws will contribute substantially to the aging of the prison system. This poses a serious threat to the correctional system in future years, being that elderly inmates, those 50 and over, require more expenditures for health care and other special needs than a younger prisoner. Current estimates are that it will cost $1.5 million to incarcerate an elderly prisoner for the minimum 25 years, which is the sentence given if convicted on third strike (King & Mauer, 2001).”
The implementation, costs and consequences of three strikes legislation deserve careful ongoing evaluation of the law’s opportunity costs as well as its effects on crime, racial disparity, legal process, fairness in application, prosecution practices, judicial discretion and impact on jail and prison populations. Of concern is whether the law is reducing public safety rather than enhancing it because of the burdens placed on crowded jails and because increased prison costs divert funds from education and social programs that may be more effective in preventing crime in the long run.
Protecting communities from repeat violent offenders may be the most emotionally and politically charged challenge to the justice system today. It is properly among the highest priorities of government. Proposed solutions to the problem of violent crime must take into account the efficient use of public resources and take care to avoid creating harmful distortions in the justice system. No single law will be a panacea for violent crime. An overriding problem with three strikes is that catchy slogans divert attention from a serious discussion of how reducing crime and violence must involve a comprehensive range of social, educational, health and justice system interventions.
I sincerely hope that when the Judiciary Committee meets next month, co-chairs Rep. Mike Lawlor and Sen. Andrew McDonald (who, thankfully, seems to be acting rationally about this – see quote below) will take a look at these reports (or others) and consider them in deciding what route they want to pursue.
“I think the challenge will be to do it in a deliberate and methodical way so we have a better public policy at the end, rather than a hurried and rushed way to react to some of the more strident calls,” McDonald said.
“You’re going to have thousands of additional inmates who would need to be not only incarcerated but staffed,” McDonald said. “It’s $40,000 to $45,000 a year to keep a prisoner in a correction facility. . . . Part of the problem with quick and undisciplined proposals is that they have vast, unintended consequences that create other problems down the road.”
“With all due respect to my friends in the Fourth Estate, a lot of this information has been filtered through the media and I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about not only what happened but what existing law in Connecticut already says,” McDonald said.
It is also worth repeating that neither of the two accused would have been subject to a three-strikes law.
Knee-jerk reactions do not make good law. We should know this by now.