|“I think the state Legislature forgot that ‘three strikes’ is for baseball.”
There is a general consensus in America that Mississippi is the nation’s most conservative state. This reputation was established by the state’s draconian laws to enforce racial discrimination. Who would have expected that upon leaving office Gov. Haley Barbour would grant a record number of unconditional pardons to criminal prisoners?
Barbour’s largesse freed 193 criminals, some of whom had been convicted of murder. The return to the streets to some potentially violent criminal offenders has generated a serious concern for public safety in Mississippi. While Gov. Barbour opened wide the prison gates in his state, the Legislature in Massachusetts, one of the most liberal of states, is in the process of keeping so-called habitual offenders perpetually imprisoned. Who would have thought it?
Last November the Massachusetts House voted 142-12 in support of a bill to deny parole to violent offenders who have been convicted three times. A similar three strikes law was voted in the Senate. Now the two measures that have some differences are in committee to find compromises. It is expected that a compromise measure will soon make its way to the governor’s desk.
Several murders by paroled felons in Massachusetts during robberies generated public support for a three strikes law. However, the African American and Latino communities remained opposed to the measure. Of the 12 nay votes in the House, eight were from minorities.
Opponents object to various aspects of the bill. Some oppose the elimination of judicial discretion in sentencing. Others objected to the designation of some offenders as habitual criminals, a category that would impose greater oversight upon their release. Still others were concerned about the increased cost for probation officers and more prison facilities.
Too little attention has been focused on the excessive reliance in the United States of incarceration to control criminal conduct. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As of 2009, 743 of every 100,000 Americans were in jail or prison. The second highest rate is Russia, with 577 for 100,000 citizens. Our neighbor Canada incarcerates only 117 per 100,000 residents.
A recent report by the federal government’s National Longitudinal Survey of Youth indicates that the incarceration rate is not likely to decline soon. They found that almost one third of Americans have been arrested by age 23. While that study did not report results by race, other studies indicate that in major U.S. cities, 80 percent of minorities have criminal records.
Little is done in prisons, euphemistically called “correction facilities,” to prepare inmates for the world of work. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that 20 percent of blacks over the age of 16 perform below the “simple and everyday literacy activities.” The percentage is undoubtedly higher for those in prison. The job prospects for all illiterate black youth with a criminal record is close to zero. It is no wonder that 67 percent of inmates re-offend and return to prison within three years.
If society is willing to spend the substantial funds necessary to implement three strikes legislation, it would be more prudent to try massive education and training programs first to empower offenders to choose a crime free life upon their release. Unless they have the ability to make an honest living, ex-offenders will be forced back in the life of crime. That is often all they know.
Of course criminal predators must be dealt with severely; but society must also create the opportunities for all Americans to become useful, productive and law-abiding citizens.