Three-Strikes Law Casting Wide Net
Seattle Times Staff Reporter
After four years, Washington's landmark "three strikes, you're out" law has sent 39 murderers and sex offenders to prison for life. It has also put away 74 lesser criminals, who lost their freedom because they simply wouldn't stop.
David Conyers was 20 years old, three days out of prison and on an all-out blitz to stay high on crack.
So he robbed six Seattle convenience stores in just more than 48 hours. He would stand there, virtually posing for the surveillance cameras, and hint that he had a gun in his pocket. One clerk shot him. Conyers didn't go to the hospital; he went to two more stores.
Police tracked him down in a cheap Seattle motel, the bullet wound still fresh. He promptly confessed and was routinely convicted of second-degree robbery - for the third time in three years. Just that quickly, he became the youngest person ever sentenced to life in prison under the state's landmark "three strikes, you're out" law.
Conyers lives in Clallam Bay Correctional Center now, the baby of a criminal subclass whose membership stands at 113 and is growing by more than one every other week.
Before the law was enacted four years ago this month, life sentences were reserved for aggravated murders, but three-strikes offenders already account for almost 45 percent of the 254 criminals serving life without parole in Washington prisons.
Conyers had heard of three strikes, but he was focused on the screaming desire to get more crack - not that he was betting his eternal freedom for it.
"My mind," he said, "was kinda blank at the time."
Washington voters, fed up with violent crime and the blank minds of hard-core repeat offenders, embraced the concept of "three strikes" and approved Initiative 593 by a 3-to-1 ratio in November 1993. The state Supreme Court has upheld it, and the federal government and 22 other states have copied it in various forms.
It is a sweeping response to crime and a radical departure from the state's usual sentencing policy under which an offender's punishment is increased incrementally with each offense, based on his crime and record. A judge normally has room to be lenient or severe, but the three-strikes law does not give judges discretion. Excuses and explanations are irrelevant.
It has sent murderers and rapists away forever, but it has also netted the prolific offenders, especially robbers like Conyers, who amass long lists of felonies that in and of themselves are considered relatively routine within the justice system.
The pros and cons
The initiative's sponsors say the law has delivered as promised, making us safer by locking up or putting the fear of God into career criminals. While more than 100 repeat offenders are locked up for good, there are fewer than opponents of the law had predicted. By the time a defendant is convicted of his third violent felony, there is nothing left to talk about and little if any hope he will change, they say.
The violent-crime rate has been steadily dropping since the law was passed, but it is hard to say how much credit goes to the three-strikes law. Criminologists say a dip in the young male population, better police work and a robust economy have probably played roles, too.
Critics, including the chairman of the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission, say the one-size-fits-all approach of three strikes casts too wide a net, pulling in more street punks and drug addicts than violent offenders. It is disproportionately affecting African Americans at even a greater rate than the already disproportionate percentage of African Americans in our prison system. And handing out all these life sentences, they say, is like using a criminal-justice credit card and leaving the bill for our children to pay.
Three-strikes inmates represent only a fraction of the 13,000 offenders in prison, but they figure to have a significant effect on Department of Corrections' costs as they age and their ranks multiply. Conyers will never rob again, but the assurance will cost more than $1 million if he lives to his normal life expectancy and far more should he require major medical care as he ages.
Almost 50 separate felonies are considered strikes, ranging from aggravated murder to vehicular assault. Anyone convicted three separate times as an adult faces a mandatory life sentence.
After four years and 113 offenders, the roster of three strikers looks like this:
-- The average age is about 37, slightly older than the general prison population. The oldest is a 61-year-old child rapist from Pierce County.
-- Fifty-eight percent are white; 34 percent are black.
-- Two are women - one is in on a robbery conviction from Snohomish County, the other for first-degree burglary in Seattle.
-- Only 18 counties have prosecuted three-strikes cases, and almost 70 percent have come from King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. The fourth-largest county, Spokane, has sent only seven offenders to prison.
-- A King County man is serving a life sentence after being convicted of vehicular assault, an alcohol-related car accident, which amounted to his third strike. He had been convicted of assault in 1983 and 1979.
-- One three-striker, Dwayne Woods of Spokane, is also on death row.
-- Murderers and sex offenders make up one-third of the total. They include Johnny Eggers, a sexual psychopath who killed a 17-year-old Tacoma girl; Kris Howe, who murdered an 89-year-old Seattle woman who had hired him to do yard work; and Martin Schandel, a sex offender.
It's likely the number of sex offenders getting life sentences will rise because the law was altered in 1996 to allow certain sex offenders only two strikes.
But the largest group - 40 percent - are robbers like Conyers. In fact, robberies make up more than half the first and second strikes committed by all three-strikers.
Conyers' brother, uncle and cousin are serving life terms under the law after all were convicted, within a span of seven months, of separate third-strike robberies in King County.
Light sentences, then life
Second-degree robbery is a relatively common street felony and carries relatively light punishment until the third strike. The light sentences Conyers received helped him strike out so fast.
He was barely 18 when he and two other men jumped another group outside a Seattle tavern and he stole a woman's purse. He pleaded guilty to second-degree robbery and received seven months in jail. Strike one.
At 19, he snatched a $20 bill from a woman's hand in Belltown, tearing the bill in half. He says it was a drug deal gone bad. Again, he pleaded guilty and got a 15-month prison stint. Strike two.
Three days after being released he was back on the Seattle streets with no place to go, work or live. He was scrounging for crack when he met a man with the same appetite and a car. His new friend drove Conyers to the stores.
Conyers said that since he hadn't used a gun or force, he was guilty only of theft, a nonstrike crime. The jury disagreed. Strike three. Life in prison. His sentence would have been about seven years if there had not been a three-strikes law.
Dave LaCourse, one of the principal authors of three strikes, says Conyers is exactly the sort of relentless criminal who merits a life sentence.
"A lot of these guys move up to rape and murder," said LaCourse. "I have not lost a night of sleep over any one of those guys sent away by three strikes."
LaCourse was mugged 12 years ago while leaving a hockey game in Seattle. His left cheekbone was shattered during the beating.
"The guy never got my wallet because he was enjoying the experience of kicking me too much, and witnesses finally came," he said.
Police never caught the attacker. They often don't, and LaCourse learned that even if they had in his case, the criminal could received a sentence as light as three months in jail.
Prosecutors cut deals
Prosecutors say deciding whether to charge second-degree assault and robbery can be tough when the crime is a third strike and a conviction would result in life imprisonment.
In a handful of cases, they have allowed three-strike candidates to plead guilty to nonstrike crimes such as third-degree assault or first-degree theft and avoid life imprisonment.
That, say defense attorneys and other critics, is a major fault with the law. Prosecutors have discretion; judges have none.
A Yakima County man recently struck out on second-degree assault for throwing a rock that hit another man in the ear. County Prosecutor Jeff Sullivan said that while the crime itself certainly didn't merit a life term, the 29-year-old offender had eight prior felonies, including two armed assaults. Without three-strikes he would have spent about six years in prison.
"The police tell me, and I believe them, that 10 percent of the criminals commit 80 percent of the crimes," Sullivan said. "When they get to this point, they've earned their way to prison."
The race issue
Perhaps the thorniest issue surrounding three strikes is race.
African Americans, who make up 4 percent of Washington's population, already represent a disproportionately high percentage of the state's prison population: 23 percent. The numbers are even worse with three-strikes. More than one-third of Washington's lifers under the law are black.
Nineteen of the 32 offenders sentenced from King County are black. Eleven of those 19 are robbers.
Hubert Locke, chair of the state's Sentencing Guidelines Commission, said three-strikes is a "barbaric notion" that undercuts the balance of the state's sentencing system, designed for equal treatment.
"It seems to have restored the business of inequities in sentences," said Locke, an African American. "I am struck by how many black defendants are being locked away for life for robberies. People who commit robberies should be punished, but in proportion. I don't put robberies in the same category as murder and rape."
Prosecutors have a responsibility, he said, to analyze the numbers, weigh the cumulative effect of the law they enforce, and seek changes.
Mark Larson, chief criminal deputy for the King County Prosecutor's Office, said race is never a factor in deciding whom to prosecute for what charge.
"I think there are a whole host of sociological, economic and criminologic issues that might help to answer the riddle that Mr. Locke raises," Larson said. "But I do not think the answer lies in what happens in the confines of this or any other prosecutor's office."
LaCourse said claims of racial disparity have no basis because the law is clear and conduct-based.
"Only two women have been convicted under three strikes, but you don't hear men screaming that it is sexist," LaCourse said. "Anyone can avoid it. Just stop committing crimes."
Public defenders argue that because black defendants historically have been able or allowed to make bail less frequently than whites, they had been more willing to plead guilty in return for lower sentences and earlier freedom. Those pleas cost them "strikes" even if they'd taken place before the law went into effect.
Prison costs going up
Another issue that continues to concern critics is the cost of keeping people in prison for their entire lives.
The general prison population is growing, thanks in great part to longer sentences. Corrections officials forecast they will need a 61 percent budget increase - to $1.5 billion by the 2005 biennium. The money will be needed to build and operate prisons, including a new 1,936-bed facility near Aberdeen.
Three-strikers play a significant role in those projections, and Department of Corrections planners are paying close attention to the growing population of elderly inmates. A minimum-security prison was recently opened in Yakima for aged and disabled offenders to see whether that would help control the high costs associated with aging prisoners.
The long-range projections have even some supporters of three strikes wondering why the law requires life sentences rather than, say, 20- or 30-year terms.
The governor can pardon a three-strikes lifer, but the initiative recommends that not happen until the prisoner is 60, or older if he is a sex offender. If the governor grants a pardon, he or she must publish semiannual reports on the felon's status - and withstand any political fallout should the released prisoner commit another crime.
Often overlooked in the debate over incarceration costs is the cost of crime and of prosecuting the same criminals repeatedly.
The National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Justice Department, calculated that crime costs Americans about $450 billion a year. The study tried to factor in reduced quality of life for crime victims and out-of-pocket costs covering items such as legal fees, lost work time and police work.
John Carlson, chairman of the conservative Washington Institute for Policy Studies, which developed and proposed the three-strikes initiative, calls the measure "an aid to rehabilitation" because repeat criminals know the choices: Shape up or go to prison for life.
Carlson believes the lower-than-expected number of three-strikes offenders sent to prison and the drop in violent crime indicate the law might be working as a deterrent.
But the Justice Police Institute, a liberal Washington, D.C., research group, has issued a report that found crime dropped more from 1994 to 1995 in states that didn't have a three-strikes law than in those that did. The researchers acknowledge their findings are too preliminary to prove the law isn't working, but say it shows claims it is making a difference are "blatantly misleading."
Criminologists say that while offenders are concerned about the law, they rarely weigh options rationally - and they never plan to get caught. Some experts also wonder whether the law would make a criminal with two strikes more violent because he knows he will face the same punishment for his third strike whether he shoots someone or commits an unarmed robbery.
Opponents warned during the initiative campaign that criminals facing three strikes might be more willing to risk a shootout with police to avoid a life sentence. There have been a few such incidents.
When Mount Vernon Police came to arrest Castulo Rivas Jr., for assaulting his wife this year, he set fire to his apartment and stabbed himself in the stomach as authorities stormed the home. Rivas, who had two prior assault convictions, said he was hoping police would kill him. He was so distraught and violent after being sentenced to life that he had to be sedated before being taken to prison.
Delano Frazier, a three-strikes robber, almost escaped from the King County Jail last fall when he arranged for a gun to be smuggled into the King County Jail. He leveled it at two corrections officers while he was on a medical appointment at Harborview but was forced to surrender.
`How did I get here?'
Conyers' life consists of prison rules and daydreams now. He's got a job on the chow line and is thinking about taking classes. But mostly, he sits in his cell and runs through the same question: How did I get here?
He says that despite what people think, he never had a meaningful shot at rehabilitation.
"Most people in society have lived a good life," he said. "They have nice houses, boats and cars. The whole family is together. Everybody has insurance. They go hiking and bowling. They don't want for nothing. They look at other people . . . like me . . . and it's just `Lock 'em up.' They've never experienced my life, the drugs, the wild life and prison."
He says he was raised until age 9 by a father who eventually went to prison and ignored him after that. Conyers began getting arrested when he was 13 for thieving and doing drugs. He stood up probation officers. He promised juvenile-court judges he'd get his high-school degree but never came close.
Between strikes one and two, he was convicted of second-degree theft for stealing from a downtown department store. He admits selling crack on street corners.
His relatives, including his older brother and fellow three-striker, Stonney Rivers, warned him he was headed for trouble, but he learned his way on the street where drugs, cops and getting shot were part of the life.
He had progressed from convenient street rip-offs to robbing convenience stores - a sure sign of which direction he was headed. He committed his allotted number of crimes faster than any other three-striker. But, he says, he is not the murderer or rapist or kidnapper people had in mind with three-strikes.
"I deserve to be punished, but not worse than these rapists and murderers in here," he said. "They're going to get out someday. Can't society have its punishment and I can have some kind of hope?"
------------------- Four who struck out -------------------
Delano Frazier: robbery
Frazier, 39, was convicted of a third-strike robbery in 1996. He almost escaped from custody before his sentencing when he arranged for a gun and handcuff keys to be smuggled into the King County Jail. He pointed the gun at officers during a hospital visit but was subdued. He was convicted of robbery in 1980 and 1983.
Lawrence Keller: vehicular assault.
Keller, 47, was convicted of causing a 1994 head-on car accident that injured another driver. He admits he was legally drunk at the time but maintains he was only the passenger, not the driver, of the car that crossed the center line. He was convicted of assault in 1979 and 1983.
Lawrence Kuhn: murder
Kuhn 48, was convicted in 1995 of first-degree murder for his role in the slaying of a South Seattle man. Kuhn was convicted of robbery in 1977 and 1983. Even without three strikes, he would have received a prison sentence of more than 35 years. His alleged accomplice was captured in Canada and will likely also be sentenced to life if convicted.
Martin Schandel: rape
Schandel, 49, was convicted in 1996 of second-degree rape for attacking a woman in Woodinville. It was his fifth sex-related conviction since 1967. One of his cases cost the state $200,000 in damages when a jury found parole officers had not supervised him adequately.
------------------ Strikeouts by race ------------------
-------------------- Strikeouts by gender --------------------
-------------------------------------- Why three-strikes offenders struck out --------------------------------------
From burglars to murders, here are profiles of Washingotn state's 113 three-strikes offenders - and a breakdown of the crimes that sent them to prison:
Sex offense 25
Murder/attempted murder 14
Vehicular assault 6
Vehicular homicide 1
Strikeouts by year
(As of Nov. 5)
Most common first, second strikes
Sex offense 13%
Strikeouts by county
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