Editorial Note: Our position on the death penalty has evolved in the decade since the original publication of this essay.
California presently has a law on the books known as “Three Strikes” — as in, “and your out.” Recidivist criminals who have been convicted of two felonies are supposed to be scared of the penalty for committing a third one: life in prison.
Studies show that California’s crime rate hasn’t decreased since Three Strikes was instituted. Furthermore, many commentators (particularly those who haven’t been the victim of a felony crime) are outraged that many of the third strike crimes are non-violent. They claim there’s something inherently unjust about sending away an otherwise harmless fellow to prison for a mere burglary (even if he’s been convicted of two previous felonies.) A movement is afoot to rescind Three Strikes and revert to dealing with each crime on its own merits, or, more precisely, demerits.
We’re sympathetic to some of the ideas raised by the activists, particularly since many of the “strikes” California felons have counting against them stem from drug possession charges, and anyone with a molecule of common sense knows that drug possession ought to be legal. (Just ask William F. Buckley or former Governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson). But, on the whole, we’re in favor of Three Strikes for the same reason we’re in favor of the death penalty. These punishments clearly don’t deter criminals. (Apparently nothing does; and until we amend the constitution to allow torture, nothing will). Executing murderers and locking away felons — even non-violent serial burglars — protects future victims. Someone who has paid a single visit to prison ought to be scared straight enough that the next time he considers smashing a storefront window and grabbing a television from the display case he’ll remember what it’s like to be confined to a tiny cell (as someone’s bitch), and he’ll think better of committing the crime. Clearly, the specter of imprisonment doesn’t stop career criminals from hurting law-abiding citizens or stealing their property. Career criminals have no compunction about shaming their families, losing their friends, or hurting their communities. It’s best, we think, to get recidivists like these off the streets and into their cages, where they can steal each other’s cigarettes and assault and rape others who appreciate the ontological necessity of violent crime.
Everyone, even the most law-abiding among us, is capable of making a mistake. But we’re supposed to learn from these errors and not repeat them. Criminals who commit a second felony seem intent on proving that they can’t live in a lawful society. Those incorrigible felons, violent or not, who swing and miss a third time are unworthy of being on our team.