Sunday, May 25, 2003

Three strikes

Repeat offenders targeted


We in Ohio suffer from revolving door justice. State Rep. Bill Seitz says our state courts are too lenient on repeat offenders.

Judges let too many habitual criminals off with wimpy prison sentences. Crooks return to their old habits and haunts too soon, he says.

City Councilman Chris Monzel and Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen agree. They said Friday that Cincinnati's increase in gun crimes can be traced, in part, to repeat offenders.

Seitz is proposing new legislation to toughen Ohio's sentencing laws, so felons get additional prison time for being repeat offenders.

Under the bill, judges will be forced to impose maximum sentences on third-time felons for the underlying crime, and then add a year to 10 for the repeat offenses.

Third time's the charm

It's Ohio's version of the so-called three strikes laws. These laws spread to 26 states during the 1990s, after a paroled felon in California murdered a 12-year-old girl.

The idea is that criminals with three convictions are put out of the game with extra-long prison terms.

Most states use the law if the third crime is a serious felony. But not all states do.

California's law is broader and has led to crowded prisons and controversy. In one case a small-time thief was sentenced to 25 years to life for trying to steal golf clubs; in another, a nonviolent crook got 50 years to life for shoplifting videotapes, including Snow White and Cinderella.

Those cases went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in March that neither sentence constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment," the Eighth Amendment standard protecting us against disproportionate punishments.

But even with the high court's blessing, Ohio's three strikes law won't be as broad, Seitz predicted.

It will target only first-degree and second-degree felonies - crimes such as assaults, burglaries and thefts in which weapons and or drugs are involved.

"These are the bad guys," Seitz says.

On their own, first-degree felony convictions yield three to 10 years in prison; second-degree felonies get two to eight years. But with repeat offender status, that can grow to 20 and 18 years.

The new bill also would make it easier to lengthen prison terms for second-time offenders.

It's a good idea to add firepower to sentencing laws. Many cities like ours are outgunned by criminals in the streets; it's nice to hold a hammer in court.

But the new bill has some drawbacks, too.

First, it dictates judges' actions. We elect our state judges to be smart enough to decide innocence and guilt. Now we tie their hands for the next step - punishment?

Secondly, prosecutors already have great powers to shape punishment, because they recommend possible charges to grand juries.

Uneven justice

Defense attorney Ken Lawson says that system already results in harsher charges and sentencing for black criminals, compared to white criminals.

Look at the riot charges from the April 2001 unrest, he says. Back then, prosecutors vowed they'd seek maximum penalties against rioters and no deals.

We haven't heard similar pledges from prosecutors after the Cinco de Mayo riot.

Fair sentencing begins with fair prosecution.

But serious and violent felonies are different. There, standards of fairness must give greater weight to victims.

That's where three strikes - with its extra prison time for repeat offenders - strikes a chord.

E-mail or phone 768-8395

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