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"Three strikes and you're out!" This cry has moved from the baseball fields into politics in the Nineties, becoming one of the most potent law-and-order metaphors of the decade. Over 20 states and the federal government now have three strikes sentencing laws where people convicted of a third felony would receive heavy sentences - in California, 25 years to life. I would like to discuss three strikes as a metaphor for a moment, which will underline some points in the many debates that have swirled around these controversial measures.

On its face, "three strikes and you're out" calls up images of baseball, a somewhat leisurely game. The game metaphor provides a feeling of familiarity and comfort. More than that, a game is a model of fairness - fair play, healthy competition, everyone with the same chance at bat. Under this metaphorical structure, life is a baseball game, which sends a few pitches our way. We may get a hit, sometimes a home run, or we strike out. Every now and again we also get a free pass - i.e. a walk - to first base.

All these qualities make the metaphorical transfer of three strikes from a game to politics seem natural, sporting, nothing different from what we see all the time. In addition, in this media age, three strikes and you're out serves as a perfect sound bite.

However, we need to look a little more closely at the implication of fairness carried by the game metaphor. In baseball, we usually get more than one turn at bat - in fact, in a 9-inning game, a batter usually comes up three or four times. If you strike out one time, you might get a base hit next time at bat. But with the three strikes laws, you only get one turn at bat. Society is saying, in effect, not that life is a game of baseball, but that life is one turn at bat. It's like you are a pinch hitter, coming up only once, with all eyes on you.

When we look at the metaphor in this way, the unforgiving nature of the political use of the three strikes metaphor becomes apparent. When the three strikes metaphor moved away from the game of baseball and into the real life of the court system, it lost some of the fairness and sporting qualities which the game metaphor usually implies. Is life just a pinch hit turn at bat? Or do we get to play more regularly than that?

There is another problem whenever we transfer the game metaphor to real life. In a game, the scoreboard reads 0 to 0 at the beginning of the game. But in real life, the scoreboard does not read 0 to 0 at the beginning of everyone's life. (See Pratt, 1987). Some people come into life with advantages, others with the cards stacked against them from the start.

Also, if life is a game, we expect the same rules to apply to everyone. Yet here again, people play by different rules when it comes to real life. In the case of three strikes, there does seem to be a racial disparity in the application of the laws, with blacks receiving proportionately more three strikes sentencing (Mauer, 1996).

As the sound bite-metaphor three strikes has became enshrined into law, it has given birth to competing horror stories. On the one side, we have the horror stories of repeat offenders, released from prison, committing terrible crimes.

The impetus for the three strikes legislation, in fact, came from the killings of two young girls in California, as shown in a documentary by Michael J. Moore "The Legacy" (1999). The fathers of these girls became central figures in a statewide campaign for the tough sentencing law. One of the fathers later had doubts; he came to regard the particular legislation called "three strikes" as too draconian. This father (Mark Klaas, father of murdered Polly Klaas) supported the Rainey Bill, which targeted violent offenders only, instead of the three strikes bill, which applied to all felony offenses. But such nonviolent crimes as writing a bad check or possession of a small amount of drugs are termed felonies in California.

However in the world of metaphors and sound bites, the Rainey Bill was no match for three strikes and you're out. And so California produced a bill which would put third-time felony offenders away for 25 years to life. And thus the other brand of horror stories began.

Since a felony is defined so broadly in California, some people received 25-year-to-life sentences for offenses such as stealing VCR's, and shoplifting a bottle of vitamins (actual cases, see Mauer, 1996, Greenhouse, 1999).

Building prisons became a major growth industry in California, so by 1995 the state spent more money on prisons than on its two university systems (Butterfield, Apr. 12, 1995). Certainly this set of priorities is asking for more trouble in the future, as bitter inmates get released, and as less educational opportunity is available.

So both proponents and opponents of three strikes laws have ample emotional ammunition. More reasoned studies get drowned out in the clamor. One suggests, for example, that programs which intervene early in the lives of children are more effective (and cost-effective) in deterring crime than punitive measures like three strikes (Butterfield, June 23, 1996).

But reasoned approaches are not what the three strikes furor was about, as Moore's documentary makes clear. People were afraid of crime, afraid for their children. Media coverage of spectacular crimes had remained high, even though the actual crime rate had been declining. When the Polly Klaas murderer was found, a repeat offender, the campaign for three strikes took off. Three strikes provided something that people could do, to lash out against the threats they perceived all around them.

Unfortunately, just as the media picture of overall crime and its perpetrators was distorted, so also was the response distorted. The three strikes laws cast their net too widely with punitive sentences for all felony offenders. In the first two years of the three strikes sentencing in California, twice as many people were sentenced under its provisions for possession of marijuana than were sentenced for murder, rape, and kidnapping combined (Butterfield, March 8, 1996).

Many question the wisdom of the three strikes laws, and in most states where such laws were passed they are rarely used (Butterfield, Sept. 10, 1996). We may hope that more reasonable approaches will prevail. Until then, California's overcrowded prisons stand as testimony to the power of the three strikes metaphor.


Butterfield, Fox. April 12, 1995. New prisons cast shadow over higher education. New York Times, p. A21.

-----. March 8, 1996. Tough law on sentences is criticized. New York Times, p.A14.

-----. June 23, 1996. Intervening early costs less than "3-strikes" laws, study says. New York Times, p.24.

-----. Sept. 10, 1996. "Three strikes" rarely invoked in courtrooms. New York Times, p. A1+.

Greenhouse, Linda. Jan. 20, 1999. "Three strikes" challenge fails, but others are invited. New York Times, p.A12.

Mauer, Marc. July, 1996. Three strikes policy is just a quick-fix solution. Corrections Today, p.23.

Moore, Michael J. 1999. The Legacy. Documentary film, shown on PBS June 1, 1999.

Pratt, Mary Louise. 1987. Linguistic Utopias, in Fabb, N., et. al, (eds.) The Linguistics of Writing, New York: Methuen, pp.48-66.

Raymond Gozzi, Jr., is Associate Professor in the Park School of Communications, Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY.
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Author:Gozzi, Raymond Jr.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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