Tweaking three-strikes law

The Northwest political quilt is bound by a strong law-and-justice seam. Notwithstanding Left-Coast stereotypes, Washington was the first state in the nation to enact a three-strikes law, relegating persistent offenders to life in prison without parole.

Initiative 593, branded “The Persistent Offender Accountability Act,” was approved by a make-no-mistake 75 percent of Washington voters in 1993 and quickly became a must-emulate template for other states. Here was a solution to the plague of recidivist criminals, targeting inveterate scofflaws in the crack-and-gang-fueled miasma of the early 1990s. The question voters embraced was crystalline, logical, and, it seemed, proper. “Shall criminals who are convicted of the ‘most serious offenses’ on three occasions be sentenced to life in prison without parole?” With “three strikes” as the campaign’s baseball-analogy mortar, voters demanded a tough, law-and-order solution, and they got it.

Is there any reason, then, to push the reset button if the inhibit-the-repeat-offenders’ tool appears to be working?

Last Sunday, the Herald’s Diana Hefley brought the issue back into focus, underlining the decrease in three-strikes’ prosecutions. The bulk of three-strikes’ convictions came in the wake of Initiative 593’s passage (21 convictions between 1994 and 1999, Hefley reports, but just 11 between 1999 and today.)

Reasons for the prosecution dip do not include a post-Millennial surfeit of non-offending good guys, although there could be a causative relationship between the law and circumspect crooks trying to sidestep a third strike. The challenge in prosecuting a third strike is the crime’s in-practice morphing from, for example, a second-degree robbery charge to aggravated murder. Both crimes mandate life sentences. And both are subject to huge costs and incessant appeals.

It’s the law of unintended consequences.

Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe told the Herald that he was, “very cognizant of the tremendous expense, impact on the victims and greater likelihood these cases will be reversed on appeal” when weighing a third-strike prosecution.

Fortunately the problem can be remedied without defanging the law. Conscientious, no-nonsense prosecutors like Roe and his King County counterpart, Dan Satterberg, have floated the idea of a cautious, go-slow review of those cases where an offender has served 15 years and has been convicted of one of the least-serious offenses. A violent crime or a sex offense? No. So-called “second look” legislation that would facilitate the release of violent criminals? Also a big no.

Three-strike tweaks would be simple and targeted. Establish a review process for those who commit the least-serious crimes and delegate decision-making to the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board (ISRB.) Least-offense convicts wouldn’t be released until the ISRB has determined that the offender is rehabilitated. For Roe, another key component would be the good-faith blessing of the crime victim or victims.

Two interrogative axioms in the administration of justice are “what works?” and “qui bono?” (Who benefits?). The three strikes’ hammer (mostly) works, but not all strikes are equal. It’s why lawmakers and prosecutors such as Roe are asking difficult questions. Justice, like life, is in the details.