Do ‘three-strikes laws’ prevent violent crime?


(NewsNation) — A killing rampage in Memphis that left four people dead Wednesday has sparked new conversations about the efficacy of controversial “three-strikes laws” in the United States.

The suspect in Wednesday night’s killings, 19-year-old Ezekiel Kelly, has a criminal history that includes a three-year prison sentence from which he was released early on March 16 after serving only 11 months.

At 17 years old, Kelly was charged with four felonies, including attempted murder, reckless endangerment and possession of a firearm. Despite those previous charges, he was released from prison early and went on to allegedly record himself randomly killing four people.

Some argue three-strikes laws, which mandate a life sentence for anyone who commits three violent felonies, could have prevented killings like these. But experts say three-strike laws typically do not meet their desired outcome, and in some cases can actually lead to more violence.

“The guidelines are helpful, but they shouldn’t be mandatory,” said former federal probation officer Tess Lopez. “The three-strikes law has not reduced violent crime and we look at that compared to crime rates in other states that don’t have the three-strikes law, that’s telling.”

Former FBI agent Thomas Petrowski said while the United States does have a small percentage of the population who are “morally, ethically bankrupt predators we need to put in a cage forever,” three-strikes laws are not necessarily the solution to preventing them from committing violent crime.

“It’s easy to look at these things in hindsight, particularly when people re-offend,” Petrowski said. “But I think it’s critical at this stage for us to pause and be careful about not raising the bar yet again, and prompting a default to putting people in prison.”

In California, the state’s Supreme Court is reviewing an appellate court decision that said prosecutors must observe the state’s 28-year-old three-strikes law when prosecuting criminals, a law challenged by Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon.

Little data exists to support the idea that prison can be used as a deterrent for crime. Recidivism rates for state prisons, which signal the number of people released from prison who eventually return, are stunningly high, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

About 66% of prisoners released from 24 state prisons surveyed by the bureau were arrested again within three years of release, with 82% arrested again within 10 years.

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