“Three Strikes” Law in Chicago: Unjustifiably Long Prison Sentences

javier-villaraco-235574-copy-300x225Few laws have done as much damage to the US criminal justice system as the “three strikes” rule that operates in places such as Chicago. The basic premise of the law is that if someone is convicted more than three times of the same or similar offenses, the judge can aggravate the crime to one that deserves a life sentence or an inordinately long prison sentence. The laws seemed reasonable at their inception because it was hoped that they would help to curtail recidivists and prolific offenders.

In reality, the three strikes rule has meant that the prison system is overcrowded with nonviolent offenders who are serving shockingly long prison sentences. It is indeed possible to have a longer prison sentence for a third offense of drug possession than a first instance of murder. Some legal experts have critiqued the law as being fundamentally unconstitutional because it touches on the privileges granted by the 8th Amendment to US citizens. Besides, the provisions deny defendants the right to a fair trial even when they have lawyers.

Tying the Judges’ Hands

The effect of the laws is that judges have much less leeway to exercise discretion. They are effectively tied to a particular decision in particular circumstances. Quite often, the court hints that it would have given a shorter sentence, but the options are limited by virtue of the fact that the defendant falls under the three strikes rule. There have been precedents in the highest courts that categorize this law as being an instigator of cruel and unusual punishment. This is a technical legal categorization that might in certain instances even entitle the person to asylum in another country.

The absurdity of the excessive sentences is often repeated in legal circles to prove the point that the law is not working well. For example, someone got life imprisonment for stealing nine videotapes from a store. Another got a life sentence for stealing three golf clubs. There is absolutely no justification for such excessive sentencing. It cannot be justified under any circumstances. However, the way that the rules were written are faulty and prescribe solutions without actually knowing what the problem really is.

Dealing with the Aftermath of Faulty Legislation

The problem with the three strikes rule is that right from the start of the legislative process, emphasis is placed on the emotionality of the cases rather than the long-term consequences. The Clinton administration was seeking to appease those who were accusing the Democratic Party of not being tough enough on crime. That media narratives of “super predators” drove the agenda to a fever pitch with many otherwise cooler minds reluctantly supporting the law.

Now that the law is being implemented, its absurdities make it unsustainable. Even those who are fighting for victims’ rights cannot in all honesty support a law that sends someone to prison for life on account of stealing a few video tapes or gold clubs. The mandatory guidelines are intemperate and inappropriate.

The court said it would decide whether the long sentences given to two California men amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. One was sentenced to life in prison for stealing nine videotapes from Kmart; the other was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for stealing three golf clubs from a pro shop. The excesses of the law also mean that there is virtually nowhere to go for serious crimes such as terrorism and murder since the life sentence has already been expended on minor nonviolent offenses.

Advice for Those Charged Under the Three Strikes Law

The first stage is to find legal advice. You can do this by contacting David Freidberg Attorney at Law at 312-567-7100. Some of the things that will be explored in the preliminary hearings are whether or not the offense qualifies under the rules and whether there are any mitigating factors of which the courts should be made aware.

(image courtesy of Javier Villaraco)