It was a swing and a miss for state Republicans on Monday.
A partisan stalemate frustrated GOP lawmakers, as three bills — including one proposed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell — intended to impose harsher sentences on repeat offenders of violent crimes died in committee Monday before legislators could even discuss them on the floor.
“Three-strikes” laws would automatically give individuals convicted of a third violent crime a life sentence in prison. The proposed three-strikes law has provoked opposition from many Democrats, who argue the policy would be less effective than other measures already in place in Connecticut and would deny prosecutors and judges the right to decide on an appropriate punishment.
Although Republicans on the Judiciary Committee vowed to fight for a three-strikes law after a version of it was defeated, 25-16, by the Democrat-controlled committee last week, there were just too many bills and not enough time to hear the governor’s version of the legislation yesterday.
At 5 p.m. on Monday, dozens of bills died at the Judiciary Committee’s deadline. Because Rell’s three-strikes proposal was not acted on before the deadline, it cannot be brought up for debate in the current legislative session, which ends May 7.
In an interview with the Connecticut Post, Judiciary Committee co-Chair Michael Lawlor said Republican committee members knew that only one version of the three-strikes legislation would be debated and decided to choose the version put forth by Rep. Lawrence Cafero Jr. because it “was more viable than Rell’s.”
Adam Liegeot ’94, a spokesman for the governor, said Rell fully endorsed Cafero’s version of the legislation and was “disappointed” that no three-strikes legislation made it out of the committee.
But the ball game is not over for House and Senate Republicans, who still have options on deck. Before the legislative session ends in roughly seven weeks, they are expected to tack an amendment onto another bill in order to force discussion of the three-strikes legislation on the General Assembly floor.
Critics, who argue that such a law would deprive judges and prosecutors of their due discretion, have sought to downplay the intended crime-reduction effect such a law would have. A provision in an existing Connecticut law that gave judges the ability to impose a life sentence for third-time offenders under certain conditions was removed in an amendment that took effect March 1.
These critics also maintain that a three-strikes provision could put an unnecessary strain on prisons if more life sentences are handed down. They say a January 2008 bill that imposed stricter penalties on home invasion and parole violations will curb crime in the state, thus making the three-strikes law unnecessary.
But Rep. Al Adinolfi, a member of the Judiciary Committee and a vehement supporter of a three-strikes law, dismissed critics’ concerns about discretion. The movement for a three-strikes law in Connecticut gained steam last year when two paroled burglars assaulted a Cheshire, Conn., man — Adinolfi’s neighbor — and murdered his wife and two daughters.
“The judge and the prosecutor have discretion on the first strike. The second time, the judge and the prosecutor have discretion, too,” Adinolfi said. “When it gets to the third time, the judge and the prosecutor shouldn’t get options because they were clearly wrong.”
A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that in California, where a similar three-strikes law is already on the book, the law had two unintended consequences.
In California, once an individual commits a “record-aggravating” offense — i.e., either a violent crime or a serious nonviolent crime like burglary — he receives his first strike. The next two strikes can result from any felony, regardless of seriousness.
Under the law proposed by Cafero, however, all three strikes could result only from violent felonies. Republican lawmakers in the Nutmeg State are proposing life sentences for third-time offenders, whereas those who receive three strikes in California are given 25-year sentences.
While the California law induced a 20-percent decline in overall criminal activity for individuals eligible for a second strike and a 28-percent decline in overall criminal activity for individuals eligible for their third strike, the report found that it made criminals committing a third offense more likely to commit a violent crime than they previously had been.
Harvard scholar Radha Iyengar explained in the report that this phenomenon occurs because the “cost,” to the offender, of a violent crime is significantly lower relative to its seriousness than is a nonviolent crime, since a third strike is a third strike regardless of the offense. Under the California law, minor burglaries were considered to be on the same level of seriousness as assault and rape.
As a result, felons eligible for their third strike were 10 percent more likely to commit a violent crime than before the law after the three-strikes law was implemented in California, the report concludes.
Iyengar also found that the law led offenders to move to different states, where three-strike laws did not exist, in an effort to escape the high cost of committing another crime.
Four versions of the three-strikes law were pending in the Judiciary Committee. One was voted down last week, and the other three were thrown out at the committee’s deadline Monday evening.