Hawaii’s understandably cautious version of the "three strikes and you’re out" sentencing law has been largely ignored since its enactment nearly five years ago. Legislators are prudently preparing to allow it to disappear when its timetable expires this summer.
Unlike the three-strikes law approved by California voters in 1994, the 2006 Hawaii law is not mandatory and prosecutors have not sought its application. Its only implementation resulted from a single plea bargain sought by a convicted murderer to avoid a sentence of life imprisonment with no possibility of being paroled. The three-strikes law requires a sentence of 30 years to life behind bars for those convicted of a third violent felony.
As a result, the three-strikes law has had no effect on Hawaii’s bulging prison population, which already has forced thousands of convicts to serve their time in privately operated prisons on the mainland. Toughening the law would simulate the catastrophic result experienced in California.
California’s judges are required to throw away the key upon every felony conviction of a person who has a record of at least two serious or violent felonies. The third "strike" need not be for committing a serious or violent crime, according to the state’s law.
More than 40,000 of California’s 160,000 inmates are serving life sentences required under the three-strikes law. That state’s Bureau of State Audits estimated last year that their additional time behind bars — an average of nine years — will cost taxpayers $19.2 billion. While the prison system’s expenditures comprise 10 percent of California’s general fund budget, Hawaii’s Department of Public Safety, which runs the prisons, accounts for less than 2 percent of the state’s budget.
The California prison guards’ union spent nearly $700,000 in 2004 to defeat an initiative that would have weakened the law and reduced the need for so many correctional officers. The union also donated $1.8 million last year to the successful gubernatorial campaign of Jerry Brown, who opposed an attempt to weaken the three-strikes law while getting ready to run for state attorney general five years ago.
Politics is the same in Hawaii. Jack Tonaki, the state public defender, warned Hawaii legislators in 2006 that the three-strikes bill was "purely political, so politicians can say they’re being tough on crime." Mayor Peter Carlisle supported the bill while he was city prosecutor, as did Mark Bennett, former Gov. Linda Lingle’s attorney general, who predicted that it "will protect thousands of our residents from being raped, robbed or terrorized."
Present city Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro and Attorney General David Louie agree that the law is not needed. That is especially true as lawmakers try to balance the state’s budget by raising taxes. The Legislature was foolish in pandering to the tough-on-crime crowd when it enacted the three-strikes law and now would be reckless in extending or, worse yet, toughening it.