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Questions Surface Over Fairness, Cost Of 3-Strikes Laws

THREE cheers for three strikes.

That's the refrain being echoed by voters in California, Oregon, and Georgia after recent ballot initiatives aimed at locking up career criminals won overwhelming support.

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Impressed by such measures' proven record of reducing crime, state lawmakers are sprinting to catch the ``three strikes and you're out'' bandwagon - or in Georgia's case, two strikes. Yet critics are stepping up complaints that the laws are packing jailhouses and trampling on the rights of some defendants.

Polls show that 74 percent of Americans favor mandatory life sentences for three-time violent felons, and lawmakers have taken notice. Eleven state legislatures have passed such measures in the last year, while at least 12 others have bills pending.

Soon, predicts Donna Hunzeker of the National Conference of State Legislatures, nearly every state will have some form of law aimed at ``habitual offenders.''

In a report issued last month, the American Legislative Exchange Council added three strikes to its list of recomendations for reducing crime. Steve Twist, a senior fellow at the group, says that in states like Arizona, where a habitual-offender law has been enforced since 1975, crime rates have declined. Three strikes is worth the cost of extra prisons, Mr. Twist says, ``because it works.''

But critics - including civil libertarians, defense attorneys, and scholars - contend that mandatory-sentencing laws like three strikes change the dynamics of the criminal-justice system and mete out justice unevenly.

``Discretion in the courtroom has shifted from the judge to the prosecutor,'' says Beth Carter of the Campaign for an Effective Crime Policy in Washington. ``The judge's hands are tied.''

Ms. Carter contends that three-strikes laws allow prosecutors great leeway in deciding whether to prosecute a suspect for a third strike - a qualifying felony - or reducing the charge to avoid the mandatory life-imprisonment sanction.

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This shift in discretion gives prosecutors broader power, warns Marc Maurer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project in Washington. He says it allows them in effect to determine a defendant's sentence before they have won a conviction, since most criminal defendants are convicted. The laws also hurt defendants in plea bargains, Maurer argues, because prosecutors can use the threat of a third strike to force defendants into pleading guilty to lesser, yet still excessive, charges.

Many prosecutors defend three-strikes laws, of course. They insist that most people who receive mandatory life sentences are habitual lawbreakers, many with long records of violent crimes.

Yet even some prosecutors chafe under these laws. Stuart Simms, Baltimore's district attorney, says one unintended consequence of Maryland's law is that many people charged with a third strike go to trial - at great expense to the state - rather than accept a plea bargain, because they have nothing to lose.

The volume of cases has pushed prosecutors' resources - such as money for expert witnesses - to the limit, Mr. Simms says. ``It's my sworn duty to enforce the law, but its hard to do that without adequate resources.''

Most experts agree that three-strikes laws will necessitate more prisons, which already are filling up at a record pace. According to a nonpartisan study last month by the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif., the state's three-strikes law will make a 20 to 25 percent dent in crime, but the law will drive up spending on the criminal-justice system 100 to 150 percent by doubling the prison population. That's an extra $5.5 billion per year in California's stretched budget.

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