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Paper: Three Strikes Laws Don't Prevent Crime

NEW YORK—Three strikes laws flood prisons with non-violent offenders, cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, and unfairly enhance prison sentences given to minorities and the poor, says an analysis paper released today by the Open Society Institute. Scheduled to hear the case this Fall, the Supreme Court will weigh the constitutionality of a law that opponents say does not prevent crime and has instead handed down prison sentences of 25 years to life to bicycle thieves, welfare cheats, and non-violent drug offenders.

"Today, the country's prison system is increasingly warehousing vast numbers of relatively low-level, oftentimes drug addicted, offenders," said author Sasha Abramsky, who wrote the feature piece in OSI's "Ideas" paper entitled "Three Strikes Should Be Out."

"Legally, the Supreme Court would be doing a powerful service should it decide that vastly disproportionate sentences were indeed unconstitutional. And politicians who remain supportive of three strikes are lagging behind the public's desire to have criminal justice policies that make sense," said Abramsky, also the author of the recently published book, "Hard Time Blues: How Politics Built a Prison Nation."

The high court will hear the case of two men: Landro Andrade, who was sentenced to 25 years to life following his arrest in 1995 for stealing videos from a K-mart store, and Gary Ewing, who struck out after being convicted of stealing three golf clubs in 2000.

Called "one of the most punitive sentencing statutes in recent history" by the Justice Policy Institute, the three strikes law was signed by California Governor Pete Wilson on March 7, 1994 after the widely publicized and brutal murder of a young girl, Polly Klaus.

Like the baseball jingo, the law was dubbed "three strikes and you're out." If a defendant had two serious felonies in their past—and a serious felony could be something nonviolent like burglary of an unoccupied house—then any third felony conviction would automatically qualify them for a sentence of 25 years to life.

While three strikes was intended to prevent crime, the buzz of horror stories illustrating its counterproductive impact started to grow shortly after the law was implemented. Documented in the Ideas paper are numerous such anecdotes, including the stories of a homeless man who received a life sentence for stealing a slice of pizza, and another who was sentenced to life for stealing several rolls of toilet paper.

Three strikes laws also have a disproportionate impact on minorities. The activist organization Families to Amend California Three Strikes estimates that 44 percent of three strikes inmates are African American and 26 percent are Latino. All told, about two million Americans live behind bars; and, as sentences have been ratcheted up for low-end crimes, today over one million prisoners and jail inmates are people convicted of non-violent crimes.

Abramsky adds that the tens of thousands of dollars per year that it costs to keep each three strikes inmate in a maximum security prison could be better spent on education, job training, or domestic security.

Three strikes is also contributing to the rapid aging of California's prison population, creating a huge pool of geriatric inmates who are well beyond their crime years, says the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C. and an OSI grantee. Their report, "Aging Behind Bars: Three Strikes' Seven Years Later," written by Ryan S. King and Marc Mauer, is also featured in Ideas.

"Ideas," an occasional paper from OSI, debates provocative and innovative strategies for social change to advance democratic and open society values. Current and past issues of "Ideas for an Open Society" are available on the web or in hard copy by contacting

Note to reporters and assignment editors: more information on the impact of three strikes and interviews with Sasha Abramsky, Ryan King and Marc Mauer are available by contacting Amy Weil at or 212-548-0381. OSI also maintains a list of grantees that are available to write op-eds and provide information on three strikes laws and other criminal justice issues.

The Open Society Institute, a private operating and grantmaking foundation, is part of the network of foundations, created and funded by George Soros, active in more than 50 countries around the world.

Through our grantmaking and policy initiatives, OSI's U.S. Programs seek to restore the promise of our pluralistic democracy, and bring greater fairness to our political, legal, and economic systems. We seek to protect the ability of individuals to make choices about their lives, and to participate fully in all the opportunities—political, economic, cultural, and personal.

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