Three strikes laws and media bias

Eugene Volkh critiques an NPR segment on “three strikes” laws, focusing on a man who got 25 years to life for stealing some videotapes. Eugene argues that by reporting it this way, NPR is biasing its report in a way that benefits the case against “three strikes” laws. In order to provide balance, NPR should have reported on the criminal’s entire lawbreaking record, not just the “third strike.”

That sounds correct – until Eugene fills in the details NPR left out: The man was “convicted, over a span of 13 years, of three felony residential burglaries, felony marijuana transportation, misdemeanor theft, and escape from federal prison.”

You know, I’ve heard about this case many times in the past, and I had always assumed that his first two strikes included genuinely violent felonies – assault, armed robbery, something. Contrary to Eugene’s view, the way NPR reported the story strongly benefits the pro-“three strikes” side of the argument, because it left open the possibility that this man had ever committed a violent crime which could justify a lifetime prison sentence.

In fact, judging from this example, the “three strikes” rule is even more unjust than I had previously imagined. 25 years for life for housebreaking, pot smoking and shoplifting? That’s ridiculous.

(To be fair, Eugene’s post acknowledges that some folks, given further information, “might well think that Andrade’s sentence is still unfair.” But he doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that NPR’s incomplete reporting may in effect favor the pro-“three strikes” side of the argument. Nonetheless, I agree with Eugene’s conclusion – reporters should sum up all three strikes, rather than just reporting the final strike.)

* * *

On the other hand, I’m reminded of a conversation about “three strikes” I had with a woman at a bus stop a few years ago. The woman, who was Black, was in favor of “three strikes,” because under three strikes rules white people and Black people are both subject to extreme, unjust sentencing. She thought this was fairer than the previous system, in which only minorities were subject to extreme sentencing.

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13 Responses to Three strikes laws and media bias

  1. 1
    HowdyDoody says:

    It’s a sad day when “fairness” comes down to this. On one level I understand it, but this stuff is crazy. I’d rather my tax dollars go to helping people get a hand up (like provide services to this guy while in prison/support on release) vs. housing petty criminals in prison for life. It just doesn’t make sense. Note_I understand that not all prisoner’s serving a life sentence are petty criminals and that not everyone has the capacity to change.

  2. 2
    Bob H says:

    What America needs is a convict colony! Transportation for life or 15 years for theft of a loaf of bread- that what’s made Australia – when the brits couldn’t find anymore room in their jails in the 1770’s they invented Australia. I reckon you’ll need another australia soon. Either that or you’ll have to change the laws soon – those jails sure sound pretty full.
    Hey maybe that’s AWOL’s planning to do in Iraq?!

  3. 3
    JRC says:

    You’re almost right, Bob, but think farther away and redder than Iraq.

    I mean, you didn’t think we were going to Mars for the sake of “science,” did you!?


  4. 4
    PinkDreamPoppies says:

    “You’re almost right, Bob, but think farther away and redder than Iraq.”

    And here I thought you were about to say North Korea…

  5. 5
    Stentor says:

    I was thinking Greenland — there will be lots of empty space there once global warming takes care of that ice cap.

  6. 6
    Raznor says:

    No, what we should do is ship everybody off of Manhattan, erect huge walls, turn it into a prison colony, and eventually send in Kurt Russell to rescue the president whose plane crashes there.

    It’s the perfect plan.

  7. 7
    justicestory says:

    The “three-strikes” law does not necessarily do anything to even out imbalances in sentencing between whites and minorities. The prosecution still has discretion to decide whether the previous conviction count as a strike and whether to charge the current crime as a “third strike”.

  8. 8
    Aaron says:

    Volokh’s post makes Andrade’s sentence seem even *more* ridiculous by detailing what crimes Andrade was convicted of.

    It’s funny how “small government” conservatives and (some) libertarians decry the “expansion of government” and “government intrusiveness,” yet are for the three-strikes laws as they are – do you seriously believe that prison resources are best spent keeping a chronic petty criminal like Andrade in prison for life because of the fear that one chronic petty criminal may commit a murder?

    The three-strikes laws may make sense for repeat armed robbers, rapists, and home invaders, but only perpetuate big government when applied to people who commit non-violent crimes, even more serious ones like burglary.

  9. 9
    mrkmyr says:

    I do not support three strikes, and this Andrade is a good example how the law goes wrong. But…

    I curious why burglary is not a serious crime to so many people. I think one’s home is very important place; invation of it is extremely frightening to many people; loss of their most valued possessions can be tramatic(ones deceased mother’s wedding ring). Burglary can often lead to more violent outcomes, if the residents are home, or come home. I have little sympathy for a person who does not give a shit about anyone else and commits burglary.

    Most home invasions are not solved. And with a recitivism rate very high, it is estimated that for every crime a person has committed, on average they have done 15 others. Now, I don’t support punishing based upon average rates of recitivism, but a person convicted numberous times demonstrates that they are a serious problem and they likely have committed numerous other crimes.

    The question becomes: Will this person ever be a law abiding citizen? Must we suffer a wave of crime (remmeber people are rarely caught) every three years, just to give him a chance? Is it likely this person will ever add anything to the community besides pain?

  10. “On the other hand, I’m reminded of a conversation about ‘three strikes’ I had with a woman at a bus stop a few years ago. The woman, who was Black, was in favor of ‘three strikes,’ because under three strikes rules white people and Black people are both subject to extreme, unjust sentencing. She thought this was fairer than the previous system, in which only minorities were subject to extreme sentencing.”

    I’d say this woman was mistaken in her assumption. The draft was supposedly color-blind, but upper-class white boys were able to get out of serving (as opposed to working-class white guys and Black guys, most of whom were not middle or upper class). I’m sure there would be ways for people with connections to find loopholes. Also, I wonder if the rate of prosecution for whites committing a crime are even the same as for blacks who commit the same crime?

    It’s well-intentioned, but the Murphy’s Law instinct in me says that the end result would still be lopsided.

  11. 11
    Aaron says:

    mrkmyr: to clarify the terms, since both of us used the term “home invasion” – I used the term “home invasion” to mean an armed robbery committed at someone’s house. Burglary is to home invasion as auto theft is to carjacking.

    As a citizen, I’m looking for the criminal justice system to punish the act committed, and the record of the offender should aggravate or mitigate the sentence.

    A first-time murderer should get life in prison, but not a third- or fourth-time burglar. But a third- or fourth-time burglar should get a significantly harsher sentence than a first-time burglar. (But not life.) And society is punishing the criminal for the acts he committed, not the unsolved crimes no perp can be tied to.

    Life in prison for a third burglary or unarmed robbery conviction is extreme, and a bad use of limited prison resources. (Other Three Strikes convictions include a homeless man stealing a pizza from the hands of a teenager – technically a robbery.)

  12. 12
    mrkmyr says:

    I agree with you Aaron. But, your limited definition of “home invation” is narrow for the plain meaning of the words. And I still don’t think buglary is a “petty” crime. Most people who have experienced it would agree.

    A third and fourth time *convicted* burglar, is a very different person than a third or fourth time burglar. We may not punish a person for crimes they did not commit, but when sentancing a person for the crimes they did commit, you should take into consideration how likely they are to commit crimes in the future and how many. Part of the justification for keeping criminals in jail (rather than flogging them, or punishing in some other way) is the belief that keeping a criminal away from society will reduce crimes committed by that individual. So, in a sense, the concept of incarceration is partially based upon punishing a person for (future) crimes they did not commit.

    There are two views of criminal justice (not necessarily in conflict). Your “punishing for the crime commited” where a person suffers in relation to the pain they caused. And a more Utilitarian view, an attempt to reduce all the costs related to crime (both harm from criminal activity and harm from restricing a person’s freedom through inprisonment). This second view can justify harsh penalties, reduced penalties, or rehabilitation programs.

    Both require calculations of how much harm is caused by a crime. This is simply impossible to measure. And we each have our own defensable view.

  13. mr kmyr made good points. maybe 1% of burlaries result in convictions. I don’t have all the facts, but it looks like this guy has made a career of burgling, lets say 300-500 offenses.
    That’s a high risk occupation. Putting him in prison might increase his life expectancy, depending on the prison and how he copes there.
    Usually putting someone in jail is lose-lose for all involved, but here, what can you do? Of course, I’d be happy to see him outsourced to a prison in, say, india, if humane conditions can be enforced. maybe you can tell i get burgled alot. It’s one of the trade-offs of living where i do.