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Originally published February 13, 2009 at 3:22 PM | Page modified February 13, 2009 at 3:35 PM


Guest columnist

Don't weaken Washington's "three strikes, you're out" law

The Legislature should not weaken the "three strikes, you're out" law, argues John Carlson, KOMO-AM radio commentator and sponsor of the 1993 voter-approved initiative that gave criminals convicted of three violent offenses a life sentence. The real benefit of "three strikes" is that many criminals with one or two strikes on their record are genuinely fearful of getting nailed for a third.

Special to The Times

THE Seattle Times has endorsed Senate Bill 5292 to remove second-degree robbery as a "strike" under Washington's "three strikes, you're out" law. The Feb. 8 editorial argued that when the voters supported the initiative they hadn't intended it to cover Robbery 2, which is a robbery in which violence is threatened but not used. That crime would be erased as a "strike" under SB 5292, and any three-striker with one or more Robbery 2 convictions on his record would get his sentence automatically reduced. Of the 292 felons who have struck out, 81 would be freed immediately.

Just who are some of these guys who would walk out early?

Well, there's Mark Russ from King County, whose first strike was second-degree assault, and whose latest strike was for attempted first-degree rape. But since his second strike was Robbery 2, Russ would get early release.

Then there's Terry Smith, also from King County, who also had an Assault 2 and a Robbery 2. His third strike was second-degree murder 10 years ago, so he'll be getting out too.

Robert James struck out after being convicted of first-degree assault with a deadly weapon 14 years ago. He had a previous conviction for first-degree rape (that's where deadly force is used and/or the victim suffers "serious physical injury"). Because he had an earlier conviction for second-degree robbery, he got a life sentence under "three strikes." SB 5292 gives him another shot at freedom.

This is just a small sampling of some not-so-petty criminals whose lifetime sentences would be lifted if SB 5292 became law. Others have kidnapping, first-degree murder and child molestation convictions. And they all get early release if this bill passes.

Perhaps now would be a good time to point out that Robbery 2 is sometimes pleaded down from first-degree robbery, just as Assault 2 is sometimes pleaded down from Assault 1. That's why those crimes are included as strikes. And keep in mind that you have to be convicted of a "strike" three separate times. A three-striker has to commit a robbery (or a string of robberies), be arrested, charged and convicted, serve his sentence, then get out and do it all again on two more occasions before finally "striking out."

The real benefit of "three strikes" is that many criminals with one or two strikes on their record are genuinely fearful of getting nailed for a third. They know the revolving door would finally lock behind them. The third strike just "isn't worth it." Ask any cop. They see it every day.

Is there any way for a three-striker to get out once he's in? The answer is "yes." The statute includes a section that allows a three-striker to receive clemency once the governor believes the inmate has genuinely redeemed himself behind bars.

One such offender, Stevan Dozier, recently won a recommendation for clemency from the King County prosecutor, his sentencing judge and a unanimous Clemency Board. After reviewing Dozier's case file, talking to his family, his attorney, corrections staff at the Monroe penitentiary, and meeting him face to face, I also support his bid for clemency. His application is being cautiously weighed by Gov. Christine Gregoire.

With "three strikes" in effect now for 15 years, there are likely other three-strikers who will receive a review of their record on a case-by-case basis.

But remember, Dozier earned his shot at clemency. That concept goes away if SB 5292 becomes law. Why work at redemption if the Legislature simply opens the prison door for you?

John Carlson co-authored and led the campaign to pass the "three strikes" initiative in 1993. He co-hosts "The Commentators" with Ken Schram on KOMO-AM (1000).

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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