An Unjust “Three Strikes” Sentence Is Cancelled…After 23 Years

Ken Oliver (R) with his father, post-release.

The theory behind “three strikes” laws is that it  restrains habitual law breakers by upping the risks every time they engaged in their favorite pastime. It makes criminal culpability cumulative: three smaller crimes add up to the same punishment as one big one. These laws first arrived in the 90s, under President Clinton. I remember my reaction at the time was 1) maybe it will work as deterrenceand really reduce crime and 2) if a twice-convicted criminal knows that the third “strike” will send him away for a long time and commits a felony anyway, that’s his choice, and nobody should feel sorry for him.  I admit that I still have vestiges of this rationale lurking in my brain; it’s the Baretta Principle, from the TV show that made Robert Blake a star before he had his wife killed: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

Ironically, Blake did do the crime and never had to do the time, but then, he was a star. His career hasn’t been going so well, though.

There is some evidence that “three strikes” laws work. Some states, like California, have recorded dramatic drops in  crime rates since the enactment the measure.  In a 2011 report, Los Angeles reported crime had decreased by half since 1994, when its “habitual felon’ statute went into effect. Data from other studies suggests that this is an illusion. Continue reading

Barn Doors + Anger + Ignorance + Irresponsible Legislators = “Caylee’s Law”

When someone first mentioned the wave of support for “Caylee’s Law,” proposed legislation so far pending in four states making it a felony for a parent not to report a child’s death within an hour or a missing child within 24 hours, I responded that it “sounded like a good idea.”  Lots of dumb things sound good to me before I think about them. “Caylee’s Law,” is in fact a terrible idea, and about 10 minutes of quality thought illuminates why.

The law is the result of multiple factors more related to human nature than sound law enforcement. When something unpopular and frustrating happens, like the death of Caylee Anthony and her mother’s subsequent acquittal of murder charges, the response is often to try to fix the problem with a law. Such laws are often formulated in the heat of emotion and sentiment rather than careful reasoning and consideration, and the result is  bad laws that cause more problems that they solve.

These laws also embody the Barn Door Fallacy. Society passes broad-based measures to stop an unusual occurrence that has already done its damage, and that may be extremely unlikely to occur again. Nevertheless, society and the public saddle themselves with expensive, inconvenient, often inefficient measures designed to respond to the rare event. One shoe bomber, and millions of passengers have to remove their shoes to go through airport security. One adulterated bottle of Tylenol, and every over-the-counter drug bottle requires a razor blade and the manual dexterity of a piano virtuoso to open. Two sick boys shoot up Columbine, so third graders get suspended for bringing squirt–guns to school. Continue reading