Life imitates sport…and gets life: three strikes and you’re really out

Posted on May 24, 2010

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One of the themes of this blog is that sports are a lot like life. Or more specifically, the way we engage with sports tells us a lot about how we engage with other parts of our social and political lives. But sometimes these other parts of life seem to draw from our sporting culture. Surely this is what we see increasingly in electoral contests, the coverage of which is almost indistinguishable from the coverage of sports on ESPN. The most interesting analyst and (meta-)pollster in the last Presidential election was Nate Silver, whose techniques were honed during years of geeking out over baseball with his sabrmetric buddies.

Now here’s a less fortunate way life may imitate sports. Since 1994, California has had a so-called “three-strikes-your-out” law, which allows even non-violent criminals to be sentenced to life after three convictions. According to a recent New York Times Magazine report,

Twenty-five other states have passed three-strikes laws, but only California punishes minor crimes with the penalty of a life sentence. About 3,700 prisoners in the state are serving life for a third strike that was neither violent nor serious, according to the legal definition. That’s more than 40 percent of the total third-strike population of about 8,500. Technically, these offenders are eligible for parole after 20 years, but at the moment, the state parole board rarely releases any prisoner early.

No doubt many of those 3,700 stories are something like Norman Williams’s.

Williams, who is 46, was a homeless drug addict in 1997 when he was convicted of petty theft, for stealing a floor jack from a tow truck. It was the last step on his path to serving life. In 1982, Williams burglarized an apartment that was being fumigated: he was hapless enough to be robbed at gunpoint on his way out, and later he helped the police recover the stolen property. In 1992, he stole two hand drills and some other tools from an art studio attached to a house; the owner confronted him, and he dropped everything and fled. Still, for the theft of the floor jack, Williams was sentenced to life in prison under California’s repeat-offender law: three strikes and you’re out.

The language of “three strikes and you’re out” comes obviously and undeniably from baseball. Not only that, it is something that, in the context of baseball, is obviously true — even sacred. Who would ever argue against the “three strikes, your out!” rule in baseball. So it was clearly a brilliant strategy in the original referendum campaign in California to make a catch-phrase that is a truism in one context look like commonsense in another. (Almost as brilliant as “if the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.” Who can argue against a rhyme?)

Now here’s what I’ve always wondered. If baseball had evolved to have four strikes instead of three, would we now be seeing “four strikes” laws across the country? The aim was to get serial offenders off the streets. A line has to be drawn somewhere. Two convictions is surely not evidence of a serial or habitual offender; four or five is a little better. Would those pushing for the law have settled on “three” as the magic number were it not for baseball?

I’d be curious if anyone in the early 90s did some investigating on this (interviews with political strategists, polls?). I’m not sure how you would even go about proving or refuting a causal role for baseball in making the idea, and the number three in particular, so popular. In a cursory search, though, I have stumbled on a small literature on the use and abuse of baseball metaphors in American law. (My access to these articles runs through my university library system, so my links probably won’t work for you; but you can find the similar leads searching on Google Scholar.)

It’s bad enough doing life for a spree of petty crime. Wouldn’t you hate to think that among your sources of rotten luck was the decision somewhere along the way to have three strikes, rather than four, in what would become America’s Pastime?

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Posted in: baseball