William Rommel was a small-time swindler who just didn’t learn. First he committed $80 in credit-card fraud. Then he forged a $28 check. Finally, he was charged with $120 in fraud.
That time the judge locked him up for life.
Life imprisonment is a pretty harsh sentence for stealing a total of $230. But Rommel was subject to a Texas version of “Three Strikes, You’re Out.” The law imposed an automatic life sentence on anyone convicted of three felonies.
Today federal lawmakers want to pass the same kind of legislation for the whole nation. It’s called the “Three-Time Loser Act.”
But the bill itself is the real loser.
The Three-Time Loser Act is being sold to the public as a way to get tough on crime. But this bill covers only federal crimes. Since more than 99 percent of violent crimes are prosecuted on the state level, the bill is mere window-dressing.
What’s more, the act goes after a lot of the wrong people. Its broad definition of violent crime doesn’t cover just a stranger holding a gun to your head. It also covers a fist fight in a bar. Under this law someone could be shut away for life for three drunken brawls.
Even worse, the Three-Time Loser Act applies to violent crimes against property as well as people. A petty burglar who uses a crowbar to break into someone’s car gets the same punishment as someone who uses a crowbar to break someone’s head.
In fact, the bill even goes after threats of violence against property. I can just picture someone caught in a traffic jam being arrested for shaking his fist at another car. Three shakes and you’re out, for life.
What we’re seeing here is all the mischief caused by mandatory sentencing laws that automatically impose sentence A for crime B. Mandatory sentences treat every offense alike, with no regard for individual circumstances. A petty swindler like William Rommel, who commits fraud three times, gets the same life sentence as a serial murderer who kills three times.
The irony is, we don’t even need Three Strikes, You’re Out legislation. For serious violent offenses, judges already have the authority to put criminals away for decades. The reason violent thugs are bounced back onto the streets has less to do with lenient sentences than with prison overcrowding. With no place to put them, prison officials are forced to release dangerous criminals early.
What you and I should really press for is legislation that puts nonviolent criminals into alternative forms of punishment. Small-time offenders should not be taking up costly space behind bars. Instead they should be placed in community-service programs where they can perform some social good.
This would free up prison cells to keep truly dangerous offenders locked up for a long time.
No doubt you’ve heard politicians drumming up support for Three Strikes, You’re Out and posing as tough on crime. But in reality this bill is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. It has sharp-looking teeth, but it’s a woolly-headed bill that will fill our prisons with small-time swindlers and burglars.
While really violent criminals continue bouncing back into the streets and dark alleys.