Three strikes and you’re ou…tragous.

There’s this guy called Chaym Hecht who sometimes gets on the air with a series about some big problem in the country, and proceed to throw lots of hype and possible-nonsense about what he considers to be a terrific solution that will end the problem.

Personally I never watched any of these shows, and there are enough people making noise out there that I didn’t find any reason to give him more attention than I give the rest.

Today, however, I received a forwarded email from a friend, regarding another project of his. The big problem this time is crime, or more specifically the high rates of property crimes, and the potentially insufficient enforcement.

The email contained a link to the show’s site (Hebrew only, sorry), hosted under the site of the television network which broadcasts his show. Something which one would expect will give some credence to what is said there. Sure, people sometimes get their facts a little wrong, but a reputable television network won’t put pages full of outright lies, hype, and misinformation, right? Well, wrong.

I was actually amazed by how much nonsense they managed to stick into so little text. And that’s what is supposed to convince people to support his idea. They even have a petition page there, allegedly going to the ministers of justice and internal security, and to the law committee in the Knesset. So what’s on the site is supposed to be enough for people to be able to declare that they agree and support the suggested legislation.

Now, my problem isn’t exactly with the proposed legislation. That is, I don’t support that law he’s suggesting, but that’s not why I’m writing this post. People have a right to suggest law I don’t support. What they shouldn’t do is present background and supportive facts which are not true and not factual.

The law he suggests is presented as being similar to the Three Strikes law in the US, where judges should be lenient on a first offence, strict on a second, and have a mandatory large jail time for a third offence. And it shows some info about the law in the US, which is supposed to convince us it will be a good idea to do the same here.

Except that much of the information presented is false. And that the laws, while similar on the outline of escalation for three offences, are different in their most important characteristics.

The main page tells us that the proposed legislation could reduce crime rates by 50 percent. This value is taken from another paragraph on the page, telling us that after two years from when the Three Strikes law was accepted in the US the crime rates there dropped by 50 percent.

A second page is then provided with some background information about the origins of the law in the US. That page discusses… California. No mention of the fact that Washington approved such a law first. It only talks about California. And tells it like it was enacted there first. Not critical, but not exactly true.

I just mentioned it to get the dates, for that two years reference. Because that page mentioned it being enacted in California in 1993, and mentions President Clinton making it a US Law in 1995.

It’s not clear if we should expect a 50% reduction in crime rate in California between 1993 to 1995, or between 1995 to 1997. Let’s look at both, and try to find out.

First, here’s a site dedicated to supporting the Three Strikes law in California. We can expect them to be biased, but we can expect them to be biased in favour of the law. That is, showing the highest possible improvement, the highest possible reduction in crime rates. And what do they say on their front page (emphasis mine)?

California’s crime rate is down 32.7% versus a 13.0% drop for the rest of the nation! New York state added 34,000 police to achieve an even greater reduction than California – 33.4% in the 6 major categories.

32.7% is a very nice figure. It’s not 50% however. Not even close. And, as they themselves note, the law enforcement is important, but it’s the investment in enforcing the law, not merely having a Three Strikes law. Put more cops, you get lower crime rates.

They even post nice comparisons, over the five years from 1993 to 1998, showing countries with the Three Strikes laws, and without. And you can see for example Connecticut, with the law, getting a 18.6% reduction, while Arkansas, without this law, getting a 21.3% reduction. Doesn’t say that the law isn’t helping, but it does say that the law can certainly not account for the entire reduction, maybe not even for most of it.

And still no mention of that 50% figure. And if two of these years would have had such a drastic improvement, they would have been mentioned. If they can have a page in 2006 showing the five years until 1998, then I’m sure they could have just as well shown two years, if those had a much more impressive crime reduction number. Remember, this site is really pro the law.

But let’s not trust them to be biased, let’s check more facts, for the exact years we want. Let’s check the year-by-year crime rate statistics provided by the FBI through the Disaster Center.

Year Index Violent Crimes Property Crimes
1993 2,015,265 336,381 1,678,884
1994 1,940,497 318,395 1,622,102
1995 1,841,984 305,154 1,536,830
1996 1,660,131 274,996 1,385,135
1997 1,569,949 257,582 1,312,367
1998 1,418,674 229,883 1,188,791

Anyone notices a two year period there in which the drop was at 50% ? I don’t see it either.

Never mind the number, there’s a much more obvious way to see the lack of such a big jump. The Office of the Attorney General of California has a few charts with information about crime in the state. Like this lovely graph, showing crime rates over all the relevant years, with a separation between violent crimes and property crimes. What does this graph show? It very clearly show that property crime rates started to drop before 1993, although violent crimes seem to change at about that year. It also shows that the drop is for less than 50%, and that there weren’t any two years there with a much higher rate than the others around them.

Or, to put it bluntly, that 50% figure is an outright myth. Where did they take the figure? I don’t know, but I have two options. One is that they just made it up, since it sounds impressive. The other is that it has something to do with this Attorney General statement, from 2002, on the drop in crime rates in California in the 1990′s:

Between 1991 and 2000, California’s overall crime rate plummeted 50 percent. The homicide rate fell 47 percent. California’s crime rate made history in 1999 with the largest one-year drop ever, 14.9 percent. During the decade of the 1990s, California’s violent crime rate declined at almost twice the rate of the rest of the United States.

Except that it talks about the entire decade, not any specific two years. And mentioned the largest drop to be in 1999, surely quite a few years after California, and other states, enacted the Three Strikes law. And it mentions that the crime rate drop there is the lowest in the US, while California is far from being the only state with the Three Strikes law. That petition site of Mr. Hecht mentioned 24 other states, implying they all saw similar crime drop rates… Guess what? They didn’t. Not a one.

That statement says some more, though:

There is considerable debate among criminologists about which strategies were most effective in the 1990s. Some point to helping at-risk youth, getting guns out of the hands of criminals and tougher sentencing laws. Others point to more police on the streets, community policing and the abatement of the “crack epidemic.” Still others point to the economy, after-school programs and other prevention programs.

Anyone else missing the line there saying that the drop was mostly due to the Three Strikes law? It’s there under “tougher sentencing”, I imagine. Doesn’t seem to be the focal point from this, though.

OK, change of subject. That show site has another page, giving some statistics about the crime rates in Israel. Some is taken from the police, stating that there’s a an attempt at thefts, roberry, break-ins, etc, every 44 seconds. And such rates for murders, rapes, and drug trafficking and usage. That serves to illustrate that there’s a problem, so fine. Though I doubt very much we’re worse off than some US states with a Three Strikes law.

But then they go on to list, on the same page, results from a survey they did on the show. 68% of Israeli citizens have had a break-in, or had their car stolen, apparently. Notice, this is not according to the police, this is according to the survey. Guess what? People who didn’t have any such problems are less likely to want to participate in such a survey.

Also, according to this survey, 69.6% protect their houses against burglaries. I assume this includes putting locks on the doors, and installing an alarm system. If so, it sounds to me like it’s way too low, and should be much much higher. Even in areas where crime is extremely rare it’s still good sense to keep your house, and your possessions, secure.

Another fascinating bit from this survey, only 9% believe that the police is capable of handling property crimes. Not sure what handling means, but that numbers seems… practically meaningless. Lack of faith in the police is nothing new. And is usually true even when the police operates spectacularly. Still, I’m willing to accept most people don’t have much faith in the police. Fine. Why is that relevant? Guess who will have to track down the people committing the crimes if a Three Strikes law will be enacted? Right, the police. Guess who will have to keep track of how many times they were charged with the crimes? Right again, the police.

As far as I could see the proposed law does not include replacing the police, or even restructuring the police. If anything, it only deals with the idea that judges are too lenient with people who they find guilty of repeatedly committing property crimes. The law doesn’t deal with actually tracking and arresting them, nor does it deal with the ones not found guilty (For lack of evidence, or other reasons).

93.9% of the people asked do not agree to a condition where thieves deserves compensations when they are hurt during their “job”. Is that terribly irrelevant, or am I missing something here? This is a much bigger problem in the US than here. Any real cases like that here are extremely rare. And, most importantly, this has nothing to do with the Three Strikes issue, or with generally the crime condition in Israel. At all.

And last, 87.6% believe that thieves should be incarcerated for a long duration. No mention how long is long. And are we only talking about someone entering your house, taking all the electronics, jewels, and silverware, and then trashing the place? Because in the way this is written, that also applies to someone who swipes a money bill you leave on a counter in a bar unattended.

All in all, lots of survey info which is not relevant, and not really informative. The only purpose it serves, especially under a heading of “Crime Status in Israel”, is to aggravate people, and make them annoyed. Because annoyed people will be more inclined to think that yes, there’s a problem, and this solution of making sure the guilty will be punished is good. Except that, as I said, it doesn’t say anything about the actual crime conditions, or about the effectiveness of the suggested law.

Mob inflammation techniques, pure and simple.

OK, having gotten through the measly background, the adrenaline pumping techniques, and the false factoids on how good the concept is, there’s the page detailing the exact suggestion. Though “detailing”, and “exact”, may be too strong to refer to the the four very short paragraphs. And yet, this is all there is, and what people are expected to sign a petition saying they want to become law. Nearly as good as saying “I trust Mr. Hecht, just ask him what the law should be, and don’t bother me with specifics”.

The page starts with the claim that the system is focused on property crimes, because these crimes are the crime base in Israel (No, I’m not sure what crime base is supposed to mean either, it’s not like anyone wanting to commit a violent crime has to commit some property crimes to build it on). And as an example of how more common they are (Personally, if violent crimes were more common than property crimes, I’d be really worried) we are told that in 2004 property crimes were 64% of the crimes in Israel.

Remember that nice graph from the Office of the Attorney General of California? Go take a second look. Or, if you don’t trust your ability to get ratios from graphs, go check the data tables. Now, did you get the impression that in California there are, or were when the Three Strikes law was enacted, more violent crimes than property crimes? No, I don’t see it either. I see a ratio much bigger than 64%, actually.

So we want to base the law on their law, but change it to deal with property crimes and not violent crimes, because we have a bigger problem with property crime than they had? That’s what the site is saying. But it’s obviously not true, and a complete non-sequitur. If simple property crimes don’t seem like a good call for this law to people having such a law for years, why would that be enough for us to think it’s a good idea here?

The second paragraph deals with the suggestion for first offence. During the first offence judges will be required to consider all the extenuating circumstances when sentencing. Though of course they will still be allowed to jail the accused for the maximum 5 years allowed under the law. Then the paragraph goes on to present the condition as it is today. It being that only 6% of property felons are sentenced to jail.

That 6% is presented as too small, and a problem. But the new suggestion claims to only change the current law by forcing the judge to consider all extenuating circumstances. So, if only 6% are jailed now, it can be expected that less than 6% will be jailed there. It is the idea behind the law, that since second and third offences are harsh, first offence will be easier for someone with an excuse. But sticking this 6% problem there is exactly counter to the point. He’s presenting it as a problem, together with a suggestion which will make this particular alleged problem worse.

And there’s no mention of what exactly does the statistic refer to. Big crimes, small crimes, attempts at theft and burglary or only the real things? It doesn’t even say if those 6% are from the people convicted as guilty, or only of people accused.

The third paragraph deal with second offence. For a second offence there will be a mandatory four months jail time, no probation. Currently, it says, only 11% are sentenced to jail.

This is not detailed enough. Some things deserve jail time, some don’t. Some more, some less. This is why judges have discretion. And the Third Strike law, while intended to reduce this discretion for third offences, isn’t supposed to do it for a second offence without any ability to reconsider. This suggestion, as is, doesn’t even treat cases where the required jail time would be longer than four months. Four months for everything, and that’s that. The end. I do assume they allow a judge to set longer sentences, if not shorter, and if not any other sort of rehabilitation techniques, but it doesn’t say it. So again, the petition is to support a law which is either flawed, or with details the supporters don’t know.

The fourth, and last, paragraph deals with third offences. Anyone convicted in a third offence will be sentenced to three years in jail. And there are a bunch of exclamation marks there, tucked up to help put people in the right mood.

All in all, not very inspiring, unless you got here already mad enough not to think about what you’re reading.

And all this, the push for a Third Strike legislation for property crimes, when California, for example, is considering making their own law even more lenient for non-violent offences, is very out of place.

California, the state that launched a national get-tough-on-crime movement with its “three strikes, you’re out” measure in 1994, is poised to reconsider whether to ease the stiffest provision of its landmark law: locking up third-time offenders for the rest of their lives.

Two ballot initiatives – both led by Los Angeles area prosecutors – are aiming to put more flexibility in the three-strikes law, in a bid to address concerns that it is imprisoning too many nonviolent criminals at too great a cost to taxpayers. The measures would come before California voters in November if they qualify for the ballot.

The Americans, living with this law for years, aren’t all in agreement whether it’s good or not. They publish studies, some supporting this side, some the other. Certainly the idea has benefits, but it also has its drawbacks. Anything like that needs to be considered carefully, not driven forth by populism.

The suggestion for this law is similar to the Three Strikes law in that it has escalating conditions for the first three offences. But here the similarity ends. It targets different areas of crimes, for different reasons. Any attempt to justify this one on the basis of that one is unfounded.

All that, of course, is pretty meaningless. Because, you see, on-line petitions are meaningless anyway. They don’t do anything, they don’t achieve anything, and nobody who is the target of one takes them seriously. They’re too easy to falsify, too hard to verify, and too hard to know how to judge. So the chances of our Ministers, or Knesset committees, deciding to pay attention to one are slim at best. Less than that, even.

All it serves is to allow Mr. Hecht to say in the future that he had a brilliant solution to drastically reduce our property crime rate (Oh, go check that graph again. Did you notice that property crime rates in California started climbing after 1999? Without anybody cancelling the Three Strikes law?), and nobody did anything about it.

There’s an old joke, saying that it’s a pity that all the people who really know how to run a country are too busy cutting people’s hair, serving them drinks, and driving them around. I think we need to add running television shows to the list, maybe.

A suggestion that has merit would not be presented using hype, hyperbole, and false information. These things do not indicate an idea that can survive because it’s good. Nor does it indicate that the one coming forth with the idea really thinks it’s a good one.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.