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Washington State Offers Case Study on Felon Law

IN calling for permanent lockup of three-time violent criminals, President Clinton struck a welcome note with a majority of Americans, according to polls taken after his State of the Union address.

Perhaps nowhere was the approval stronger than in Washington State, where voters recently passed a ``three-time loser'' law by a 75 percent majority.

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The arguments leading to the passage of the ballot measure here in November were much the same as the ones Mr. Clinton cited Tuesday.

``We must recognize that most violent crimes are committed by a small percentage of criminals,'' the president said.

They ``should be told, `When you commit a third violent crime, you will be put away and put away for good, three strikes and you are out,' '' he said.

The proposal was one of several measures in an anticrime bill that Clinton wants Congress to pass, including banning certain semiautomatic weapons and adding 100,000 police officers around the country to participate in community-based policing.

SOME observers say the ``three strikes'' measure in the crime bill would have limited impact, since most cases of murder, assault, and rape are tried in state courts, not federal ones. But passage of the measure would be important symbolically and could give momentum to other tough sentencing efforts.

Proponents say that to deter crime it is crucial to send a message that punishment will be certain and severe. While the repeat-offender law is aimed at hardened criminals, experts contend that other measures are needed to stem the troubling rise in youth violence.

``The penalties are no deterrent to these kids,'' says Lt. Sue Rahr, commander of the gang unit for the King County Police Department near Seattle.

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Many observers call for beefing up first-time sentences and for trying more juveniles as adults for serious violent crimes, so that these will appear on a criminal record.

Some other states have passed variations on the three-strikes theme, but Washington's is the toughest to date and will be a closely watched case study.

Opponents of mandatory sentencing argue that it irresponsibly limits judges' discretion in sentencing.

Almost everyone agrees that punishment isn't the whole solution, a theme Clinton hit on: ``Even as we say `no' to crime, we must give people, especially our young people, something to say `yes' to.''

Clinton cited job opportunities and families as examples, noting that if trends continue, half the nation's children will be born to unwed mothers.

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