By Sri Hari Mangalam
Three Strikes and you are out, a common baseball phrase is also the underlying principle for criminal penalties in America. The measure originally enacted to curb the increase in violent crimes across the country is as of now, centred in a few states. California passed the law in 1994, in response to the gruesome murders of Polly Klass and Kimberley Reynolds. The state held a proposal vote and got a very favourable response for the measure. The law held that if a person has two prior convictions, which fall within the ambit of serious and violent crimes, he shall be damned with imprisonment for life on his third. The new rule brought about an increase in the number of serious convictions, and significantly reduced the number of violent crimes on the streets. Its basic principle is that if a striker is a repeat offender he shall be progressively sentenced a higher penalty with each strike, the third one landing him in jail for life. The law which was launched due to the murder of the father of an 18-year-old in 1992, is now applicable in more than 20 states out of America’s fifty. Now, more than ever the space to evaluate its effect and the need for such a legislative reform is visible, not just in the United States, but in the Indian subcontinent as well. India has over the decades seen an exorbitant increase in violent crimes, where the offenders, unjustly, have been allotted sentences not following the scales of justice. The judicial sphere of the country requires a revamp of its criminal law legislation and recognizes the need for more serious sentencing policies for repeat offenders. The Indian legal system creates enough space, at the minimum, to analyze a provision like the Three strikes law. Accordingly, the aim of this paper is to introduce the application of this provision in the American judicial sphere, cover its prospective Indian implementation and conclude whether such a provision is needed in Indian criminal Jurisprudence.
The three-strikes legislation is two-pronged in its application. A convict shall be imprisoned for life if he is charged with a ‘serious violent felony’ or if he has two prior convictions, one of which qualifies as a ‘violent felony,’ and the other one too is of substantial gravity such as a drug offence. The main objective of such legislation is to decrease the number of repeat offenders by discouraging them from committing any other violations. The past convictions of an offender are made a factor to substantiate a judgement in the present. The law speaks only of serious crimes, however, because of its inconsistent drafting many times crimes non-violent in nature and those which would otherwise substantiate a very low penalty, fall within its ambit. The true purpose of the provision was to decrease the number of violent offences while making a judicial supplement which adequately penalizes criminals for their anti-social acts. Any crime which requires force or shows the threat of force falls within the category of violent. Even if an action might not sufficiently qualify as aggressive, it can still be legally terminalized as violent. The three-strikes rule has indeed benefited many states in bringing down their criminal statistics; allowing courts to establish swifter hearings; however, inconsistencies in an application has led to multiple inequitable pronouncements. Statistics from the California criminal records show that offenders have been convicted under this rule for acts as insignificant as breaking into a soup kitchen or stealing a sandwich. Moreover, the prison data shows that forty-five per cent of all inmates have been of African American origin, tracing hints of racial profiling. The California government recently decided to review the convictions of over 4000 offenders who had been imprisoned under the three-strikes rule, making basic provisions like parole breaks available to them. The governmental bodies are acknowledging that many convicted under this provision don’t necessarily deserve such extreme sentences. The true essence of any legislation often gets diluted in an application, nonetheless, a rule which gives criminal sanctions for life must have higher standards of practice. The need for a legislative piece like the strikes rule comes as a reminder every time a gruesome act is committed; however, it is equally important to vesicate the easy abuse of such rules. The most important factor to establish while analyzing such a provision and quantifying whether the Indian sector requires it is to necessitate whether the positive impacts of this rule overweigh its multiple gaps in practice and if it is possible to equitably apply a provision of such criminal gravity.
India has seen an extreme rise in criminal activities ever since Independence. The National Crime records bureau annually publishes the statistical change in the country’s criminal records. The statistic over the years showed an upwards trend continuously, fortunately, a favourable change has been seen in the past few decades. Indian criminal statistics have seen a percentile decline in violent acts. Nonetheless, according to the reports of the ministry of statistics, concerning the Global criminal stats, India still sees relatively higher numbers. Moreover, rape one of the most heinous crimes, is amongst India’s highest recorded criminal acts, outnumbering countless felonies. The issue is well recognized in Indian jurisprudence and many legislative reforms have been undertaken to facilitate the judicial and enforcement precepts. Nevertheless, for a more effective, efficient and immediate change reforms of extreme nature, seem increasingly necessary. The three-strikes law in the Indian state of affairs can bring about revolutionary changes. The regulatory piece can help restrict recidivist criminal offences while creating a space for the Indian Judiciary to practice ‘enhanced sentencing.’ A rule which takes an offender’s criminal history into account can drastically restrict repeat crimes and discourage first-timers from committing any illicit acts. The Indian Judicature has seen many heinous acts committed by social elements not worthy of being called humans, nonetheless, the pronouncements handed out to them are not proportionally just. The three-strikes law will make it harder for criminals to go relatively scot-free of their libellous deeds. A provision which takes matters of criminal jurisprudence by the criminal history of an offender creates space for effective and efficient pronouncements. The act will necessitate proportional convictions for a person’s criminal capers. Nevertheless, despite creating a more equitable space against criminal acts, the three strikes law if not applied properly might see adverse effects. The law might just lead to an increase in violence against the enforcement agencies, as those afraid of life sentences might resort to the most violent means of escape. The provision might also take away from the traditional aspect of a judge weighing both the mitigating as well as the aggravating aspects of an act to substantiate a judgement. Moreover, most violent crimes happen in the heat of passion, generally without premeditation, where the prospective punishment of imprisonment of life won’t be sufficient to stop the offender. The three-strikes law can definitely bring a substantial change in India’s criminal jurisprudence, nonetheless if utilized poorly it can facilitate an inequitable social domain, the very sphere it originally aimed to eliminate.
The requirement of a strict legal provision; today, has become more of a desideratum. There is no denying the fact that the Indian judicial system, as well as, its enforcement agencies would benefit from an act which treats criminal larks with the utmost severity. The three-strikes law can presumably be the legislation which satisfies the current social need. It treats criminal acts inflexibly and with the maximum amount of sternness. Nonetheless, the provision also leaves a lot of space for abuse. The inequitable application of such a provision might have a disproportionate impact on minority offenders, or could even unjustly pronounce imprisonments for crimes which don’t warrant such harsh treatment. The legal provision will undoubtedly benefit the Indian criminal law jurisprudence but due to the numerous faults in practice and the American history of prejudiced application, it can’t be adopted in its present form. The law requires multiple changes to make it as equitable as possible and to make it subscribe to the localized Indian identity. The division of the legislative piece into separate stages, with different penalties for minor and violent offences, would enable a more egalitarian application. The repeat offenders who commit non-violent crimes should simply see their sentences get doubled instead of being thrown into prison for life. The adoption of separate degrees for punitive measures will also help reduce reactionary actions against law enforcement. Moreover, India as a prerequisite for such a provision, before anything else must work on its jailing facilities. A major factor for the US’s somewhat successful application of this law is its effective prisons. India, on the other hand, treats its prisoners like animals, where inhumane living conditions are a staple. If a provision which would greatly increase the number of inmates was to be adopted, prison reform is imperative; though the rather dangerous American way of privatization must be avoided. The legislative piece does provide solutions to multiple issues of the current criminal law system, nonetheless to make it adhere to the true principles of the constitution multiple modifications, if not a complete revamp is imperative. The Gravity of such a legal change allows no space for inconsistencies and for an equitable Indian existence, no lacunas in the form of excessive punishments or ineffective prisons should exist.
[The author is a student at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.]