Arizona doesn’t have a “three-strikes” law mandating lengthy — often life — sentences for criminals on conviction for their third felony, but the U.S. Supreme Court’s upholding California’s toughest-in-the-nation version should give our legislators the impetus to pass one.
The high court, by a narrow 5-4 margin in several votes announced in a ruling Wednesday, said the “three-strikes” laws 25 states have do not violate the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment when dealing with serious repeat offenders.
“Three-strikes” laws have been criticized by civil-rights advocates as cruel and unusual and they have cited examples of comparatively petty crimes constituting the third strike — one was the theft of a slice of pizza off another’s plate — as responsible for exacting extra-long terms on undeserving offenders.
Wednesday’s decision dealt with appeals from repeat criminals whose third strikes were, respectively, stealing golf clubs from a pro shop and shoplifting videotapes from a department store.
Pizza theft and other lesser offenses do not in and of themselves constitute major crime waves or merit lengthy punishments. But those concentrating on the third strike in a certain case need to also look at the first two. In virtually every case where the “three-strikes” law has been imposed, criminals were convicted of felonies in their first two “strikes” because prosecutors considered them enough of a danger to society to not let them plead down to lesser offenses.
Recidivism is too prevalent to soften penalties for repeat offenders. Certainly this is true in Arizona, where high recidivism rates persist despite reforms that eliminated most parole.
“Three-strikes” laws give a potential criminal two chances to think about the consequences of hurting others or depriving them of their property. If, after two such opportunities to weigh the prospect of a draconian sentence, a criminal commits that third crime and is found guilty of it, he deserves no sympathy.