Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Wrong Answer in Connecticut

A “three strikes and you’re out” law to force judges to impose lengthy sentences on criminals convicted of three felonies is the wrong solution for Connecticut or any state.

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The headline and the first sentence capture the correct position on this policy issue given our past experience with "3 Strikes" policies. In short, what we should have learned is that by the time an individual picks up the "third strike" they are typically in the later stages or past the crime-prone years. While this particular case is an exception, the age-desistance effect is well documented. In effect, as we get older we slow down, and this effect also generally holds for street criminals.

The other aspect is that this policy ensnares all felons, including some petty property offenders. The overall "get tough" punishment policies, exemplified by the "3 Strikes" legislation, has contributed significantly to the current crisis in prison crowding. Do we want to use a scarce commodity (prison space) for non-violent or relatively trivial offenders? Another fact to consider is that as the population of "lifers" continues to grow, so does the cost of incarceration. As we get older, we typically need more medical care. This problem may be exacerbated if inmates have conditions such as mental health or drug addition issues to manage.

We once again see what happens when public policy is made on the basis of worst-case anecdotal evidence. A terrible crime was committed, but is the proposed solution the best response? Experience elsewhere suggests strongly the answer is no.

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