Apr 13, 2008

The "Justice Journal"- Commentary Re Three Strikes Debate

The Following piece was excerpted from the "Versus" section in April's issue of "The Justice Journal", a Connecticut based newspaper dedicated to local Criminal Justice
issues, focusing on public safety and citizen involvement (see previous post for details)

"Deal-Away-a-Crime” System Needs Change
by Laurel O'keefe

This past July, one night of brutal criminal rampage brought to light the desperate need for much needed reform within our state’s criminal justice system;
The abduction, assaults, and eventual murders of three members of the Petit family by two career criminals, have come to stand as representative highlights of the endemic and pervasive flaws within this system.

In response to the growing public demand for criminal sentencing reform, many of our state's legislators would seem to be banging the table with their shoe, amid the hue and cry of their citizens, claiming that a "broad and sweeping" sentencing law, such as "three strikes", would

serve to deprive prosecutors and judges alike of their “discretion” in sentencing defendants of crime
This discretion is empirical, so it is argued, and at all costs must be preserved.

It needs to be clarified that in reality this concern is msotly about prosecutorial discretion; as Practically speaking, criminal judges in this state have very little to do with the actual charges with which most offenders are eventually “convicted” – And the same with their sentences.

That is.. unless there is a trial by judge or jury, and trials are extremely rare; Approximately96 percent of criminal cases in Connecticut never go to trial because they are routinely plea bargained by prosecutors, often resulting in a substantially lesser criminal record and corresponding sentence.

This of course leaves a formal record for the criminal that does not reflect the severity of the crimes that he or she has actually committed. And with few exceptions, Connecticut judges will rarely overrule what a prosecutor has already worked out with the defendant’s lawyer.

This deal -away- a -crime- system wouldn't be so abhorrent if it were limited to non-victim crimes, such as our overburdened motor vehicle dockets, petty larcenies and non-violent drug crimes-the latter in which treatment is often moew appropriate in any event.

Unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons, plea bargaining has become standard operating procedure within our Connecticut courts for dealing with violent crimes as well; This includes felony assault, sexual assault, kidnapping and yes, even murder.

A three strikes law or consiatntly utilized persistent offender law for violent offenders is one neccessary component in a multi-prong reformation of our Connecticut’s Judicial system.

There are several three strikes versions successfully being utilized in dfferent states and they do appear to be reducing violent crime if only as serving as a deterrent.
Some of the first broader versions created unforeseen issues, occasionally creating severe sentences for a third strike on a less serious non-violent felony, some of them drug-related and/or motivated.

The argument is made that a three strikes law will result in a disparity of high sentences for minority offenders-This perhaps is an unintended effect of the fact that many repeat minority and low income offenders rely on public defenders, who are either less motivated, adept, or simply lack the pull that an expensive private attorney may have with the local prosecutors office (ie in getting their charges reduced within Plea deals). Ironically, this is another essential reason that one strict sentencing system is needed; to ensure uniformity in sentencing for our states dangerous offenders.

There is no doubt that we must be diligent and meticulous in choosing and crafting our own version of a three strikes bill. We need to use our collective intellects, experience and conscience in devising a bill that makes sense in its practical application.

But there is one thing that I am certain of, as an activist and survivor of violent crime; the main reason that our lawmakers are reluctant to pass a strict sentencing law is the very same reason that it is so desperately needed; Something tangible needs to be stuck in the cogs of our run amok sentencing system.

And while the main argument seems to be that the three strikes bill take away judicial discretion- it is this very “discretion” that has become utterly misused and abused- leading to a system ruled by “discretion” rather than law and accountability.And The reasons for this misuse are many; professional laziness, apathy and cynicism-- cronyism,
favor swapping, and yes, things like directives regarding prison overcrowding. None of which

seem to belong in the sacred place where committed professionals are supposed to be battling the rigors of life and death crime.

The sad truth is that precious few would seem to be battling anything anymore in our Connecticut courthouses, and it is the victims of crime that are paying the heaviest price;

Not only the victims of the endless cases bargained down to next to nothing in viable punishment or culpabilityy, but also the future victims of these same offenders, who, after receiving little to no actual prison time, early parole, or irresponsibly low bail,go right back out, committing more violence, confident that they can depend on the same lackadaisical system which they have become experts at navigating, escalating their crimes, and more human suffering results.

Most of the victims of these countless bargained down” crimes are nameless, and their experiences forever invalidated by the “deal” that belies the reality of the crimes committed against them.

That is, until the next especially atrocious and brutal crime is committed by an irresponsibly paroled, low bailed or under-sentenced repeat offender; And precious lives are once again stolen, and nightmares and pain are what remain for those that survive.

Laurel O'keefe is a survivor of violent crime in Connecticut and writes the blog "Chasing Justice" http://www.chasingnormal.blogspot.com/

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