ACLU Urges Defeat of 'Two Strikes' Automatic Sentencing Law, Calls Measure Overbroad, Unfair and Unnecessary

July 31, 2001 12:00 am


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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today urged Congress to defeat a controversial measure that would impose an automatic life sentence for individuals convicted twice of a broad range of sex offenses involving minors.

“No one, of course, condones sex offenses,” said Rachel King, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “But we believe that very few people would support legislation that would mandate a life-long residency in a federal cell for a 19-year-old kid who’s been busted twice for having consensual sex with his underage girlfriend. Such a measure seems extreme – not to mention unconstitutional.”

The bill (H.R. 2146), set for mark-up today in the Subcommittee on Crime of the House Judiciary Committee, would impose a mandatory life sentence for any person convicted twice of certain federal sex offenses against a minor. Were the bill to become law, the automatic life sentence would have to be imposed without regard for the circumstances or context of the offense.

The ACLU called the bill unnecessary in light of enhancements recently enacted by the United States Sentencing Commission that already impose severe sentences for serious sex offenses involving minors.

Civil rights groups contend that the two-strikes bill would threaten Eighth Amendment constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, for example, recently overturned the life sentence of a man convicted of possessing a quarter gram if cocaine, ruling that it “denies reality and contradicts precedent to say that all drug crimes are of equal seriousness and pose the same threat to society.” Similarly, the ACLU said, the two-strikes bill would equally deny reality and contradict precedent by treating all sex offenses against minors as the same.

The automatic nature of the bill also flies in the face of a recent polling study commissioned by the ACLU. The study found that while Americans still demand immediate consequences for criminal activity, they are also firmly committed to the idea that the punishment should fit the crime. (More information about the ACLU poll can be found at: http://archive.aclu.org/features/f071901a.html.)

“Mandatory sentences are unpopular, unnecessary and place an enormous strain on our penal system,” King said. “And, what’s worse, in real life they’re a poor deterrent to crime. Congress should leave sentencing decisions with the men and women who are responsible for making them – the nation’s judges and juries.”

The ACLU’s letter on the “two strikes” measure can be found at: http://archive.aclu.org/congress/l072301a.html

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