ACT’s infamous three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy will get a first airing in the House tomorrow when the Sentencing and Parole Reform Bill is introduced. Violent and sexual offenders will face harsher penalties each time they reoffend – a first “strike” will earn a warning, a second will get a no-parole jail term, and a third a life sentence with a 25-year minimum non-parole period. In short, if you’re a three-striker you’re probably never getting out of jail.
Three-strike laws aren’t new. Australia has them, Canada has had (and repealed) them, and the United States has them. California’s version has attracted special attention because in that state petty theft can be charged as a felony, meaning that recidivist petty thieves can go away for life. ACT has assured us that its law won’t lead to those kind of results because small-time offences won’t count as strikes. Whew. But does that mean that the bill would make good law?
Well, not really. There’s no denying that repeat violent and sexual offenders should be punished and prevented from inflicting further harm. That’s not a new idea. Courts applying existing sentencing laws already take full stock of an offender’s criminal history, the likelihood that they’ll offend again and the risk that they pose to the community. But we’re told that the law as it stands isn’t tough enough. Crime is on the increase, and criminals are getting harder.
So how will the three strikes law help? ACT has focussed its rhetoric on keeping nasty criminals off the streets and preventing further crimes by making repeat offending unpalatable. Sure, if someone’s in prison then they can’t reoffend, but is that a good enough reason to keep people locked away? I think not, because a three strikes law denies offenders the possibiliy of change by exiling them from the community that they were (for better or worse) part of, and it takes away from other members of the community any responsibility for the welfare of their (however anti-social) fellow human beings. It assumes that other punishments don’t work, or that this will work better, even though the evidence of any causal link between three strike laws and diminished crime rates is equivocal. (In fact, recent research on California’s version suggests that violence against the police by apprehended offenders has increased since the law’s enactment.) And, It’ll cost the prison system millions of dollars.
We’re told that three strike laws will deter recidivist criminality, but I wonder, if current sentences don’t deter, why the promise of 25 years would be uniquely fearsome. When prison terms are as long as they are for third-time violent criminals, the actual numbers are kind of academic.
At least at first blush, ACT’s three strikes bill looks like a visceral and simplistic solution to a complex social problem. It looks like reactionary, not responsive, law-making with a shaky evidential foundation. I’ll need a lot of convincing that it’s anything more.