||Strikes, lockouts, and a movement to yank the antitrust exception notwithstanding,
baseball is still the national pastime, a uniquely American sport that
defines the ideal of the American athlete and by analogy, the American
citizen. We look to sports and athletes to understand the nature of what
is loosely called American culture. When the sport is racked by gambling
scandals and crippled by labor-management disputes, the sense of crisis
that results is as much a function of the waning of what one might call
the national character as it is of empty stadia and disappointed fans.
In no sphere of government is the connection between sport and society more apparent than in the judiciary: recently retiring Senator George Mitchell is the paradigmatic sportsman-statesman, respected by political allies and adversaries alike for playing the game of politics with grace and politesse. For a moment Mitchell literally embodied the trope of baseball as justice. Under simultaneous consideration for a Supreme Court appointment and for the job of commissioner of baseball, Mitchell was considered worthy to oversee two of America's most cherished institutions. Mitchell's decision to withdraw from consideration for the Supreme Court position perhaps speaks to which institution is held in the higher regard, which bench is the more coveted, which term is primary in the ballpark/courtroom trope.
Baseball is seen as justice in its purest form, a system of rules applied with evenhandedness to all by a neutral party schooled in the intricacies of the rulebook, skilled in the resolution of ambiguities, and of unimpeachable moral character. So what could be a more sporting, more populist, more American solution to the perception of increasing crime than the brainchild of California's Governor Pete Wilson: the imposition of life sentences for third-time recidivist criminals known simply, elegantly, sportingly as "three strikes." To argue against "three strikes" is like arguing with the umpire when he says that the last pitch was in the zone after all—oh, you can argue, but we all understand that your position is tainted with bias from the beginning. You'll be shouted down by the fans, penalized for delay of game, ridiculed, spat upon. As "three strikes" crime legislation sweeps the country (traveling under aliases such as "three-time loser" and Mario Cuomo's baseball-illiterate "three strikes and you're in"), legislators who have doubts about the efficacy and fairness of the proposed change in criminal sentencing know the psychology of the bleachers well enough to keep their misgiving to themselves.
Play ball! Three strikes is now law in several states and a part of the recently enacted federal anticrime legislation. Despite the national euphoria over the new approach to crime, there is mounting evidence that three strikes will do little to deter crime and that the cost of removing all three-time recidivists from society will be crippling, both in terms of trials (which defendants facing life imprisonment will have no incentive to forego in a plea bargain)1 and jail space (California, for instance, is already the nation's largest jailer, with the state currently spending 9 percent of its budget on prisons, a figure that is expected to grow to as much as 30 percent as a result of three strikes and other mandatory sentencing provisions2). But three strikes strikes a chord with the public, even as it strikes out with criminologists, judges, and even prosecutors (California prosecutors begged the state legislature to deep-six three strikes3). In a climate in which fear of crime tops the list of citizen concerns as voiced in national polls, seemingly tough crime bills need little in the way of theoretical, normative, or pragmatic justification.
Because public panic over a fictional crime wave has rendered any rational policy argument on the merits of three strikes superfluous, the policy has been addressed almost exclusively on the field of the decontextualized image and the gut-level emotion. This state of affairs has led the loyal opposition to simply deride three strikes as fiscally catastrophic and objectively illogical. But three strikes does not defy logic; instead it embodies a covert social logic that is rigorous in its internal consistency and encompassing in its social consequences. Three strikes is a critical part of a broader political trend, for such pervasive movements are rarely random or isolated. Three strikes is the most visible element of a necessarily (if not primarily) spatial political strategy.
The spatial strategy of the new criminal sentencing rules takes three forms. First, as discourse, three strikes obscures the location of social violence by reifying "the criminal" as an anonymous and therefore potentially ubiquitous social menace, rather than understanding crime as a set of socially proscribed acts that are located (literally as well as figuratively) and must be addressed in their specificity. Second, as policy, three strikes enforces an order of surveillance, social curfew, and quarantine that in fact orders individuals and groups in their specific locations even as its discursive legitimation denies the possibility of such a social map. Third, as discourse and policy, three strikes reorders political and social relations. By representing the menace of crime as ubiquitous, it justifies the intensification of a carceral state with both public and private arms and justifies the intrusion of multifarious ordering, regulating, and information-gathering instruments in all areas of public life, from the ordering of bodies in their corporeality to the ordering of individual psyches—from, as Michel Foucault would have it, "the great strategies of geopolitics to the little tactics of the habitat."4