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THE 3-STRIKES RULE STRIKES OUT

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Anyone who doubts that popular "three-strikes-you're-out" laws are little more than quick and ineffective fixes to a complicated problem should consider Larry Lee Fisher.

He recently stole $151 from a sandwich shop in Washington state, a place where voters overwhelmingly approved the three-strikes law last year. Unfortunately for Fisher, this was his third conviction. He already had served 17 months in jail in 1988 for stealing less than $100 from a pizza parlor and four months in 1986 for stealing more than $300 from his grandfather.Fisher is a troubled, petty thief who deserves to serve time for his crime. But he didn't use a weapon in the sandwich shop. He didn't threaten anybody physically. He clearly doesn't deserve a life sentence without the possibility of parole - a sentence traditionally reserved for perpetrators of the most heinous crimes. But that is what he got. The three-strikes law demands that anyone convicted of three or more crimes must serve a life sentence - no exceptions.

The Fisher case demonstrates several reasons to reject such laws. They treat all criminals equally, regardless of the severity of their crimes. They rob judges of the ability to judge, and they provide taxpayers with a false sense of security while saddling them with the responsibility of housing and feeding thousands of prisoners. The cost of housing Fisher for life will far outweigh the amount of money he has stolen in all three crimes combined.

Judges must get tough with habitual criminals, but a relationship should exist between the severity of the punishment and the crime committed. Three-strikes laws are little more than lazy solutions that emphasize vengeance over justice.

California, Virginia and Indiana have adopted similar three-strikes laws. Congress is trying to make it apply to federal crimes, and 24 other states are considering it, as well.

Don't the lawmakers have enough judgment to realize that a rule that makes sense in baseball doesn't make sense in the courts? Let's hope the craze ends soon before the burden becomes too great for the public.