Some politicians support a recent proposal popularly known as “three strikes and you’re out.” In one form, anyone convicted of three felonies (or three violent felonies or three felonies of the same kind) would receive a sentence of life in prison without chance of parole. Would act utilitarians support this proposal? Would rule utilitarians? Would you? Why or why not?
Act and rule utilitarians alike would likely see the “three strikes and you’re out” proposal as increasing overall utility and therefore support it. Anyone convicted of three felonies is likely to commit more. Therefore, there would seem to be greater overall utility in sentencing him to life in prison without a chance of parole, thereby eliminating the threat to society that he poses. Furthermore, both act and rule utilitarians would agree that the threat of life imprisonment without the chance of parole serves as a deterrent to those who have already committed two felonies. Sentencing anyone convicted of three felonies to life in prison without the chance of parole sends a clear message to anyone who has already committed two felonies that he had better rehabilitate. Act and rule utilitarians alike would also agree that whether the result of this threat is the rehabilitation of the felon after two felonies or life imprisonment after three, overall utility would increase, as the threat to society the felon poses is eliminated either way. However, this general assessment of the act and rule utilitarian approach to dealing with punishment overlooks the possibility of rehabilitation.
I would not support the “three strikes and you’re out” proposal because I believe there is a possibility of rehabilitation. I would agree with harsher penalties for repeat felons, but not to the extent that there is no possibility for parole. In fact, I believe there is a utilitarian case for not supporting the “three strikes and you’re out” proposal: If there is any possibility of rehabilitation, there is greater utility in paroling rehabilitated felons than in keeping them imprisoned since the cost of their life imprisonment without any possibility of parole decreases overall utility.