Three years after its introduction as the United States' latest miracle cure for violent crime, the case for "three strikes and you're out" remains unproven. For its supporters, the first benefits are already apparent. Detractors, however, say that the measure is unfair and in the long run counter-productive.
The first "three strikes" law, whereby a person convicted of a third felony is automatically sent to prison for life, was passed by the state of Washington in 1993. California followed suit a year later, spurred by uproar over the death of Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old girl abducted and murdered by a freed rapist.
In all, 15 states have similar measures on the statute book, while Georgia plans to bring in an even stiffer "two strikes and you're out" law for certain offences, effective from 1999.
Even the Federal Government - whose jurisdiction covers only 2 per cent of crimes committed in the US each year - is into the act, with a "three strikes" proviso included in the Crime Bill passed by Congress in August 1994 and which has thus far affected some 20 cases.
Whether it is effective, however, is another matter. In California, where "three strikes" has been a hotter issue than anywhere else, Governor Pete Wilson claims the law is a prime reason for two straight years of falling crime. Critics say it merely distorts the judicial system and makes an already overloaded prison system even more unworkable.
According to one study by a San Francisco legal institute, the law hit twice as many marijuana smokers as rapists, murderers and violent criminals combined. It also disproportionately affects African Americans. "If you were writing a law to deliberately target blacks, you could hardly do it better than `three strikes'," one of the report's authors said last month.Reuse content