Three Strikes – Prison Policy by Baseball Slogan

Liam Martin

Labour are currently considering a repeal of three strikes laws. Garth McVicar and National are up in arms. No surprises there, they have been trading on misinformed slogans like three strikes for years. This particular slogan was imported, a symbol of our mindless mimicking of American prison policy. The importers did not even think about it long enough to change the name – a baseball metaphor that doesn’t make sense in New Zealand.

Three strikes replaces thoughtful decision-making with blind punitiveness. When a person is convicted of a third ‘strikeable’ offence, the sentencing judge is forced to impose the maximum prison term no matter the circumstances. Without three strikes, they could still hand down the same sentence, but would only do so if careful review of evidence showed it warranted. Three strikes simply forces the maximum regardless of what makes sense in a particular case.

The first New Zealander to be convicted of a third strike was Raven Campbell. He got a seven-year sentence for pinching the bottom of a female guard at Waikeria, where he was already imprisoned. I do not want to excuse his actions. Too many women know what it is like to experience this kind of sexual harassment and assault. Yet any rational review of the case would show the sentence to be a travesty. The judge explicitly said it was unreasonable, but was forced to impose it anyway. Informed decision-making was trumped by the blind logic of a baseball slogan.

I spent five years living in America and researching prisons doing my doctorate at Boston College. There are many things I learned to love about the country. I married an American woman and my two year old son is an American citizen. More and more I watch the NFL before rugby. But American prisons are an international disgrace. I have come to see them as an ominous forewarning of what lies ahead for us if we continue down the same path.

The United States keeps 2.3 million people behind bars, more per head of population than any country in the world, and 6.8 million people under correctional control of some kind, either in prison or on probation or parole. For all this, it remains easily the most violent developed nation on earth.

American criminal justice is brutally racist. The country imprisons a higher proportion of its black population than South Africa at the height of apartheid. One third of all black men will spend time in prison during their lifetime. Whole black communities are excluded from work and housing through criminal records for low level drug offences, creating a racial caste system with eerie resemblance to pre-civil rights segregation.

The American prison boom thrives on a politics of vote grabbing by misinformation and appeals to the worst aspects of human nature. The Donald Trump approach of immigrant blaming and wall building. The attitude of punish harshly no matter the cost or whether it will even work. The politics of criminal justice by baseball slogan.

The National Party are embracing the same cynical rhetoric. Simon Bridges takes every opportunity to parrot the tough on crime catchphrases of American mass imprisonment, and says if re-elected, he will reinstate three strikes and retroactively punish anyone missed in the meantime.

Labour are advancing a genuine alternative for the first time in three decades. They have promised to reduce the prison population 30 percent. But the reform agenda is fragile. They did not build the mega-prison at Waikeria, but the major justice initiatives in their first budget were more police and expanded prison capacity. Some say Labour is using the three strikes repeal to test public appetite for change, and the response will guide whether they take on the bigger challenges of bail and parole reform.

It is a fitting test case, a classic example of our long-term tendency to mindlessly copy failed American prison policy. Let’s treat it accordingly. Scrapping three strikes would be a perfect way to begin a meaningful search for home grown alternatives.

Liam Martin in a Lecturer at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington. This piece was first published in the NZ Herald, 10 June 2018. 

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