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The Governor's Strikes, Back

Rell is gunning for three-strikes laws in Connecticut, but a recent study suggests similar laws have had mixed results in other states

By Adam Bulger

April 17, 2008

On Monday, March 31, in the aftermath of the home invasion-related murder of 62-year-old New Britain resident Mary Ellen Welsh by sex offender Leslie Williams, Connecticut governor Jodi Rell repeated her demand for a three strikes law. She's called for a state law making life sentences mandatory for offenders convicted of three violent felonies before, notably in the wake of the July 2007 home invasion murder in Cheshire. Meanwhile, a recent study suggests that enacting a three-strikes law would have unexpected consequences for the state.

"The Governor feels that if someone commits three violent felonies, at that point, they've demonstrated pretty convincingly that they don't belong in society," said Rich Harris, a spokesperson for Rell's office.

Some lawmakers and criminal justice experts in the state questioned Rell's timing. State representative Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, was quoted by several sources noting that the three-strikes proposal would not have impacted Williams, who had only served one prison sentence.

"It's an odd time to focus on a three-strikes proposal. It seems like the policy discussion is in reaction to particular high-profile events, none of which would have been impacted by a three-strikes law being on the books," said Andrew Clark, director of the Institute for the Study of Crime & Justice at Central Connecticut State University.

Peter Goselin, of the National Lawyers Guild, believes Rell's three-strikes law is an attempt to misdirect worries about economic and social issues.

"Rell's anti-crime agenda is like offering someone a laxative to treat cancer," Goselin said.

On Thursday, April 3, Rell held a press conference demonstrating what some took as a willingness to compromise. Rell said that while she's not backing off three strikes, she wants to tighten up persistent offender laws that are already on the books in the state. One state criminal justice advocate thought Rell was trying to create a backdoor for the three-strikes proposal.

"Rell backpedaled and said she was willing to re-work the current persistent offender statute when all she's really trying to do is sneak as much three-strikes into that statute as she possibly can," said David Samuels, co-chair of ex-offender rights group Clean Slate Committee.

There are signs that momentum for the law has slowed. Representative Denise Merrill wrote an opinion piece in the Hartford Courant on April 10 titled "Three-Strikes: Swing and a Miss," which decried the proposal, saying that three-strikes laws and increasing criminal penalties are not the answer to the state's crime issues.

"If we increase penalties any further, we will have to build prisons, dramatically increase the number of prosecutors and courtrooms, and exponentially increase the number of parole and probation officers a fact that everyone would prefer to ignore," Merrill wrote.

But if the three-strikes law were passed would violent crime in the state decrease? A report released in February by the National Bureau of Economic Research says that it may, but not without consequences.

Many previous studies found three-strikes laws counter-productive. A 1999 Stanford Law and Policy Review study called California's policy a "failure." Two years later, a study by the Department of Criminal Justice at California State University determined that murder rates increased after three-strikes laws were enacted.

The new NBER study, titled "I'd Rather Be Hanged for a Sheep than a Lamb," has more positive conclusions than those earlier studies.

Radha Iyengar, a faculty research fellow at the NBER, authored the report. Studying California's three-strikes law, which has been in place since 1994, Iyengar found three strikes to be an effective deterrent.

"It reduces the number of people who participate in crime. In particular, it really deters repeat offenders. People aren't willing to commit second or third crimes," Iyengar said. Iyengar found that three-strikes laws reduce the raw number of crimes committed by previous offenders. However, there is a trade-off. Fewer crimes are committed by repeat offenders under California's version of three strikes, but the ones they commit are more severe.

"Among the people who decide it's worth participating in crime, they're more likely to participate in violent crimes," she said.

Iyengar said her research indicates three-strikes laws may spread violent crimes geographically.

"States that don't have three-strikes laws end up being new places for criminals to go when they're leaving three-strikes areas," she said.

A criminal with two strikes in Connecticut could commit their next crime in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, where they might not have previously offended.

"Given that Connecticut is a small state with pockets of violent areas, the migration effect is likely to be very strong there," Iyengar said. "That's a particular concern that Connecticut has to think about. Not just migration to New York or Massachusetts, but also migration from violent pocket areas to other [parts of Connecticut] that someone is less likely to be caught in."

The version of three strikes originally proposed in Connecticut is less severe and more nuanced than California's, which is the harshest in the nation.

"It's intended to have enough flexibility that it avoids some of the pitfalls and some of the less-well-thought-out problems that were encountered with three-strikes laws," Rich Harris said. "Some stories may be apocryphal, but you hear stories about people going to jail on a third strike that amounted to nothing more than a piece of pizza or something."

Iyengar said Connecticut's proposed three-strikes law is better than California's system. Under the California version, an offender gets into the three-strikes system after conviction for trigger offenses, like assault or burglary. Any felony they are subsequently convicted of violent or otherwise is a strike. Connecticut's strikes are for violent crimes only. However, Iyengar said concerns remain.

"There is still the risk that offenders who commit crime may increase violence to reduce probability of detection or move to other states," she said, adding that she worries it "may encourage sex offenders to become more violent to further deter reporting and maybe even risk murder rather than life in jail."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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