On January 6, 1993, newly elected Republican state representative Ida Ballasiotes (1936-2014) files Initiative 593 with the Secretary of State. When Washington voters overwhelmingly pass the measure the following November, it will become the nation's first "Three Strikes, You're Out" law. A federal version will soon follow, along with similar laws in other states. Washington's law dictates that persons convicted of three serious crimes be sentenced to life in prison without chance of parole. Violent crime rates will drop but concerns arise, including the disproportionate number of African Americans sentenced under the law.
Persistent Offender Accountability Act
A similar initiative filed the year before had failed to collect enough signatures to go to voters. Both were based on research done by the Washington Institute for Policy Studies, a conservative group headed by radio-talk-show host John Carlson, and prompted by growing public concern about rising crime rates. Ballasiotes was a Mercer Island resident who became an anti-crime activist after her daughter was murdered by a convicted sex offender released from prison. She was elected as a Republican to the state House of Representatives in 1992, taking office in January 1993, and would serve a total of five terms.
The initiative Ballasiotes filed asked "Shall criminals who are convicted of 'most serious offenses' on three occasions be sentenced to life in prison without parole?" More than 290,000 signatures were gathered, and the measure went on the November 2, 1993, ballot as Initiative 593. The National Rifle Association (NRA) was a major backer. The initiative passed with more than 75 percent of the vote (1,135,521 to 364,567) and went into effect on December 2, 1993.
Officially called the Persistent Offender Accountability Act, the law called for a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for any adult convicted three separate times of any of nearly 50 felonies. The sentence could be commuted only by the governor, and then only when the convict was at least 60. A federal "three-strikes" law passed in 1994. By 1997, more than 20 other states had adopted similar laws.
Before I-593 went on the 1993 ballot, Governor Mike Lowry (1939-2017) and some state legislators had tried to pass a similar law that was less harsh. Democratic representatives Gary Locke (b. 1950), Betty Sue Morris, and Jesse Wineberry (b. 1955) were among those seeking to reduce the number of potential life sentences. They argued that it was wrong to count as strikes lesser crimes such as second-degree robbery and second-degree assault. "We said this is going to be disastrous for poor communities, if we leave it with all those crimes instead of just the most violent crimes," Wineberry recalled (Drosendahl interview). Their proposed version of the law was part of a larger crime package that failed to pass in the 1993 legislature. Despite their reservations, Morris and Wineberry were among those voting for the initiative because their constituents favored it. Locke opposed I-593, but was easily elected King County Executive in the same election in which voters approved the popular initiative.
In the first three years of Washington's three-strikes law, violent crimes decreased by nearly 5 percent. "While it is too early to prove cause and effect ... The fact that violent crime decreased, especially in the face of a general crime increase for all other categories, is very encouraging," wrote R. David LaCourse, a co-author of the original three-strikes proposal, in an article for the Washington Policy Center ("Three Strikes, You're Out -- A Review"). LaCourse also noted that the number of life sentences under the law to that point -- 83 -- was only about one third of the projected total.
A little more than a year after the law was enacted, the Washington Institute for Policy Studies' Carlson, who described himself as the originator of Three Strikes, cited "anecdotal evidence from scores of police officers, prosecutors and prison guards who have said that 'Three Strikes, You're Out' was causing concern, and even fear, among felons both inside and outside prison walls. 'It's the only time I've seen some of these guys afraid,' one police officer told me. Criminals fearing the consequences of breaking the law? What a welcome change from the way the criminal-justice system has been working for the past 30 years" ("Evaluating 'Three Strikes'").
In 1996, the law was tightened to allow certain sex offenders only two strikes. Also that year, on August 9, the Washington Supreme Court upheld the law, rejecting claims by attorneys for three convicts that the law was "unconstitutionally vague, a violation of equal protection under the law, and cruel and unusual punishment" ("Three Strikes, You're Out ...").
Forty-three percent of the first 83 three-strikes convicts were robbers. The next largest group was sex offenders at 20 percent. By comparison, only 13 percent were "serious assaulters" and 10 percent were murderers ("Three-Strikes Law Casting ..."). By November 1997, with 113 sentenced to life under Three Strikes, robbers still made up 40 percent -- more than murderers and sex offenders combined. Critics of the law argued it was corralling more drug addicts and minor gangsters than dangerous criminals.
Another trend drawing criticism was that Three Strikes disproportionately affected blacks. In 1997, African Americans accounted for 4 percent of the state's population, but more than 33 percent of the 113 sentenced to life without parole under the law. According to a 2002 study by the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission, 37 percent of the 179 three-strikes convicts to that point were black. Critics said the law was slanted against young black males, who are more likely than whites to be arrested and sentenced for drug offenses and property crimes.
Public defenders pointed out that black defendants historically were less able to make bail and so were more likely to plead guilty in return for lower sentences, and that those pleas counted as strikes even if they predated the three-strikes law. Hubert Locke (1934-2018), a professor and former dean at the University of Washington Evans School of Public Affairs who was chair of the guidelines commission, said the law "seems to have restored the business of inequities in sentences. I am struck by how many black defendants are being locked away for life for robberies. People who commit robberies should be punished, but in proportion. I don't put robberies in the same category as murder and rape" ("Three-Strikes Law Casting Wide Net"). Another criticism of the law was that it contributed to mounting prison populations at an ever-greater cost to taxpayers.
The prevailing opinion, however, seemed to be that the law was serving its purpose -- keeping persistent offenders off the streets. Paul Guppy, research director for the Washington Policy Center, said, "I don't think the offenses should be set in concrete. But we have to be careful about being led by statistics. If an individual makes a poor choice, they should be accountable" ("State 'Three-Strikes' Law Hits ..."). Initiative 593 co-author LaCourse asserted, "Anyone can avoid it [the law's mandatory life sentence]. Just stop committing crimes" ("Three-Strikes Law Casting ...").
Calls for Reform
As the number of three-strikes convictions grew, so did calls for reforming the law. The sentencing guidelines commission found that the majority of third strikes were for second-degree, non-violent crimes, and recommended that some kinds of second-degree assault and most kinds of second-degree robbery be dropped from the list of crimes counting as strikes. Democratic state senator Adam Kline (b. 1944) proposed similar changes regularly as early as 1998 but without success, as many legislators did not want to appear as being soft on crime.
By 2013, about 330 people were serving life sentences under the state's three-strikes law, and Kline was proposing that anyone with all three strikes coming from second-degree robbery or assault be eligible for parole after 15 years in prison. Among those supporting that proposal was King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, who said many prosecutors already were avoiding charging someone with a second-degree crime if it would count as a third strike: "[I]t is in the interest of justice not to throw away the key on those who committed a robbery in their 20s and who are now in their 40s" ("Reform 'Three Strikes'").