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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 10, 2006

Three-strikes law proposed for Islands

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

Drawing a line against violent criminals, state Attorney General Mark Bennett is asking the state Legislature to pass a law requiring criminals convicted of their third violent felony to serve a mandatory 30 years to life in prison.

The law would be a variation of the three-strikes penalty in California but is aimed at what law enforcement officials describe as violent predators. The California law triggers a sentence of 25 years to life after a third conviction for any felony, so some criminals have received the maximum punishment after property crimes.

Judges in Hawai'i already can impose harsher sentences on repeat offenders, but Bennett and others say the new law would prevent violent criminals from being released from prison too early.

Bennett told the state Senate Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee this week that the state should be looking less at rehabilitation and more at protecting the public after criminals commit their third violent felonies.

"You should be looking out for the safety of the community," Bennett told lawmakers. "Enough is enough. Enough chances are enough chances."

The law would establish a list of crimes considered violent by state officials covered by the three-strikes penalty, including murder, manslaughter, kidnapping and first-degree sexual assault, robbery and burglary.

State lawmakers who review law enforcement seem open to a new law but have questions about how much it will cost to lock up more criminals longer, given that the state's prisons are so overcrowded. The public defender's office and activists who seek to improve prison conditions also say the tougher sentences would be unduly harsh.

Susan Arnett, a deputy public defender, said first-degree burglary, for example, is often committed during the day after the burglar has determined that no one is home, so it is not a violent crime.

Arnett said the example shows why enhanced sentencing should be based on the actual facts of a crime rather than on the name of the offense.

She also said defendants would be less likely to plead guilty if they were facing a three-strikes penalty, which could cost the state more money if more criminal cases go to trial. "There is a significant financial cost to this bill, and it must be considered," Arnett said.

Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, said the state has a relatively low violent-crime rate and should be spending money to rehabilitate criminals who will likely be released back into the community. She said the alliance opposes mandatory minimum sentences because they can swell the prison population and have the potential to harden criminals because they stay in prison around other inmates longer.

"This bill offers no redemption," Brady said.

Prosecutors and police are solidly behind the new law to protect people from repeat offenders. A tearful Jeannine Johnson, who serves on the Kuli'ou'ou-Kalani Iki Neighborhood Board, told lawmakers they should not minimize the impact of crimes such as burglary. "Burglary is a rape of the family. You are hurt," she said.

In California, voters have stuck with the three-strikes penalty since 1994 despite criticism that it is flawed and unfair. This year, some in the law enforcement community are supporting a ballot initiative that would require the third strike to be a serious or violent felony.

Senate Majority Leader Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha), chairwoman of the judiciary committee, could decide this morning whether to move the bill forward. "I don't disagree that the community wants something like this," she said. "I may look at some version of it. But the main thing that bothers me is the prison space."

There have been proposals, but no state commitment, to build new prisons and reduce overcrowding.

The state spends about $40 million a year to house prisoners on the Mainland, which is cheaper than keeping them in Hawai'i. But state officials have not done a study on the social costs of sending prisoners away, or whether they are more or less likely to be repeat offenders when they return than are prisoners who stay in Hawai'i.

Rep. Sylvia Luke, D-26th (Punchbowl, Pacific Heights, Nu'uanu Valley), chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, said she would look at the bill if it moves out of the Senate.

But Luke asks whether it might be more effective to prevent violent criminals from being released on parole than to pass a three-strikes penalty: "If it's a violent offender, why is that person on the street anyway?"

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.