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"Three strikes' bill clears hurdle

The "three strikes and you're out" bill easily passed its first legislative test Tuesday.

The proposal is designed to crack down on violent criminals by giving life sentences to people convicted of three violent crimes. But it also would apply to some who commit nonviolent crimes such as burglary, drug-dealing and racketeering.

Senators said it would help the state lock away the worst criminals.

"We are echoing what the public wants us to do, get tough on crime," said Sen. Gary Siegel, R-Longwood.

The idea appears popular among legislators, who are fed up with horror stories of criminals who get released from prison only to commit more rapes or murders.

Gov. Lawton Chiles made a surprise announcement last month that he endorsed the three-strikes concept, saying he had been convinced in part during a meeting with President Clinton.

But Chiles focused on violent offenders. "After three convictions for violent crime, I propose we send these career criminals to prison for the rest of their lives," he said during his State of the State address.

The bill that passed the Senate Criminal Justice Committee does apply mostly to violent offenses such as murder, sexual battery, kidnapping, DUI-manslaughter, aggravated battery and others.

But it also applies to non-violent crimes such as burglary of a dwelling, stealing and trafficking in property worth $100,000 or more, trafficking in more than 1 ounce of cocaine or 100 pounds of marijuana, and various racketeering charges.

The bill that passed the committee combines proposals by Sens. Ander Crenshaw, R-Jacksonville, Karen Johnson, D-Inverness, and Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach.

Johnson said a crime such as burglary of a dwelling is serious enough to send someone to prison for life if it's his third serious felony. "I think anytime someone goes into someone's home, the possibility of violence is there."

As for drug traffickers, "they're the ones that are getting it out to our kids," she said.

The bill doesn't explain how to pay for the extra prison beds that the state would need under the new law. That bothered some senators.

"Do we pay for this or are we just passing another life sentence?" said Sen. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton.

The bill won't cost much in the short term because the only people it applies to are people who have been convicted after Jan. 1 of this year. So it will take a while before anyone racks up three convictions.

Silver said it would make sense to figure out a way to pay for the plan now, even though the bill won't come due until later.

But Silver, who has been frustrated by a lack of support for his plan to pay for prisons and crime prevention through a 1-cent sales tax, said the Legislature doesn't do business that way.

The bill would apply not only to criminals convicted in Florida but to people convicted of one or more violent felonies in other states.

The measure faces at least another Senate panel, then the full Senate and House.