Initiative 593 is but the latest manifestation of the anti-crime hysteria sweeping the nation. Not only does it fly in the face of justice but, perhaps worse, it abandons any pretense of rational thought. 1,593 imposes a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole--with no exceptions--for anyone convicted of a third "most serious crime." To define this new category of "persistent offenders" the initiative specifies over 40 offenses to be classified as "most serious crimes" Some are clearly major violent crimes, like murder and assault with intent to kill. But the list also includes "vehicular assault" (reckless car accidents with injuries), extortion, indecent liberties, man, slaughter, "controlled substance homicide," second-degree assault, kidnapping, second-degree (unarmed) robbery, and first-degree attempted arson. Also included are such vague crimes as "leading organized crime," "sexual exploitation," and class-B felonies "with sexual motivation."
I am not suggesting that most of these actions should not be taken seriously or that they should not have con, sequences. But the basic principles of American justice require that the "punishment" fit the crime. Judicial discretion must be preserved to ensure fairness and justice.
But as of December 2, when a "persistent offender" is sentenced, judges are required to impose a sentence of total confinement for life without any possibility of parole. Forcing justices disregard circumstances surrounding crimes that may result in life in prison is clearly a violation of justice and due process.
In some cases, this approach will also violate prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. Convicted "persistent offenders" are not eligible for community custody, earned early re, lease time, furlough, detention, partial confinement, work crew, or work re, lease. All "good time" reductions for those convicted of first-degree rape, first-degree assault, and first-degree murder will be eliminated. In other words, the last remnants of rehabilitation as a goal of incarceration have been eliminated. In addition, comparable convictions in other states or in federal courts count as "strikes," and the law is retroactive to include offenders who have already been through the court system two or more times for the "most serious crimes" defined in the initiative.
If considered rationally, the cost factor alone should have been sufficient to defeat this measure. Repeat "serious offenders" after middle age are not the norm, which means that expensive geriatric wards will have to be built and maintained to confine people who are long past the age of being a threat to anyone. This legislation will force Washington taxpayers to spend nearly $26,000 per person, per year (for an average of 30 years) to feed, clothe, house, and care for people who aren't any risk to us--nearly $800,000 per per, son. The need for high security to en, sure that none of these people ever gets out will inflate these figures further.
Costs will also increase on the local level, where prosecutions for these offenses occur. We can expect fewer guilty pleas and more--and longer--trials. This means higher costs for jails, prosecutors, and already overburdened public de, fenders--and all this even though standard sentences already keep seriously violent re-offenders in prison until their sixties and longer. Now their sentences will be lengthened to life, even though we know that criminal activity drops dramatically as people enter their for, ties and fifties, and even though we know we can't use conviction records to predict future criminal behavior.
In these times of scarce and finite resources, is keeping even more offenders in prison for the rest of their lives the best way to protect public safety? Wouldn't the money be better spent on confining truly violent and dangerous offenders, rehabilitation, services for abused children (the criminals of tomorrow), more drug and alcohol treatment facilities, and other measures to prevent crime?
It is revealing that the concept and wording of 1,593 came to us directly from the Washington Institute for Policy Studies, a conservative think-tank in Washington state (most definitely not to be confused with the progressive Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.). Institute President John Carlson says he has been contacted by residents and officials in 20 other states, and that signatures are already being gathered for the 1994 ballot in California.
Ironically, many supporters of 1,593 are also fierce opponents of gun-control legislation. In fact, the National Rifle Association bankrolled the Washington campaign and has pledged to do likewise in other states. This sort of "tough on crime" legislation provides the NRA with an opportunity to polish its image while, at the same time, diverting attention from easy access to guns as a major factor in violent crime.
The initiative was also supported by police unions and crime-victims groups. Several crime victims bluntly stated during the campaign that, if a few relatively harmless offenders are committed for life under this law, it's worth the price to lock up truly dangerous people.
William Bennett, arch-conservative former Education Secretary and drug czar, campaigned in Washington for 1,593 and has promised to do the same in other states.
Opponents of 1,593 included the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Washington Association of Churches, the Washing, ton State Catholic Conference, the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and several federal prosecutors who had the courage to speak out against it. One of them, Tom Wales, said:
1,593 will not cut a fraction of the
crime that would be cut by a good
tough gun-control law. This is
clearly an emotionally driven campaign.
People are responding be,
cause of a few incredibly heinous,
high-profile cases. This proposal
is irresponsible and manipulative.
During the campaign, Seattle Times reporters reviewed the cases of the 16 people convicted of murder and sentenced to the in Washington state since 1981. They reported that none of them would have been prevented from committing his crimes had 1,593 been law at the time. They also discovered that, of the more than 130 men and women serving sentences of life without parole for aggravated first-degree murder, only a small fraction might have been stopped by 1,593. They pointed out that young minorities will be its primary victims. Then they proceeded to endorse it!
Instead of facing the far greater challenge of dealing with the causes of crime, most Americans are focusing their attention on the offender, treating the symptom and not the disease with quick-fix solutions like 1,593. Never mind that there is absolutely no evidence that 1,593 will reduce crime. Never mind that numerous studies have confirmed that the vast majority of crimes are committed by impulse and compulsion and are not deterred by the death penalty, much less the possibility of a life sentence. Most people continue to cling to a mystical belief in the efficiency of punishment and the power of deterrence.
But fear of crime is doing more than poisoning our constitutional heritage and subverting rationality. Because we do terrible things out of fear--to others as well as ourselves--it is also diminishing our humanity.
Barbara Dority is the president of Humanists of Washington, the executive director of the Washington Coalition Against Censorship, and cochair of the Northwest Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce.
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|Title Annotation:||Civil Liberties Watch|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1994|
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