Three Strikes Laws

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Three Strikes Laws


The 1980s and 1990s brought greater scrutiny to crime control policies, resulting in a large number of policies that were designed to restore public faith in the criminal justice system. Despite evidence that the policies are ineffective and costly, many of them are currently still in place. California’s Three Strikes law is the perfect example of this. Despite research showing minimal to marginal impact on crime rates from its passage, it continues to persist despite enormous costs to the state. Restructuring of the law might provide a much needed cost reduction while still providing the public with the safety they desire.

Three Strikes Laws

During the course of the 1980s and 1990s, policy making became more politicized and subject to greater public scrutiny. This led to the creation of policies designed to restore public confidence in the criminal justice system. Despite evidence to the contrary, policies like the war on drugs were pursued because the groups that were most affected lacked the political power to do anything and were regarded as dangerous while the groups that were least affected were assured that something was being done and unlawful behavior would not be tolerated. Then came policies such as Three Strikes, sex offender registries, and mandatory sentencing laws which served as expressive measures undertaken to denounce the crime and reassure the public, very loudly. Laws like these are generally passed as an instant response in the wake of some incident of violent crime that created great public outrage. The most pressing concern of policy makers subjected to public outrage about a violent crime is making a decisive, immediate response that demonstrates the state’s ability to be in control and protect its law-abiding citizens while upholding law and order (Garland, 2010). Policies like the Three Strikes laws are designed to appease an outraged public, but are they really the best way to provide crime control? Three Strikes laws are simply one way the state “acts out” against crime, with little actual benefit seen in actual crime control and costs outweighing any potential benefit that might have been seen.

In 1994, California approved a change in sentencing law known as the Three Strikes Law. The law required a minimum sentence of 25 years to life for three time repeat offenders with multiple prior serious or violent felony convictions. It also included a sentencing enhancement section which imposed longer prison sentences for some repeat offenders, such as those with one previous serious or violent felony. Even if their current felony conviction is non-violent and non-serious, the law provided that they receive a sentence of twice the prison term otherwise required under law for the new conviction. The law also required consecutive sentencing rather than the concurrent sentencing with no limit to the number of felonies that could be included in the consecutive sentence. There was no consideration for the length of time since the prior felony and probation or diversion was prohibited in those cases. The only positive aspect of the law for the offender was that prosecutors could “move to dismiss or ‘strike,’ prior felonies from consideration during sentencing” (Legal Analyst’s Office, 2005, p. 7). The final aspect of the law was that placed limitations on good-time credits earned by offenders, since those sentenced under the law can only reduce their sentence by one-fifth rather than the standard one-half. These provisions have resulted in significant increases in the amount of time that some repeat offenders spend in state prison. For instance, an offender with 2 prior violent or serious offenses, one prior for assault on a police officer and one prior for burglary of a residence, who then receives a conviction for a non-violent, non-serious offense, such as receiving stolen property, would receive a sentence of 25 years to life rather than the 2 years he would have received under the old law (Legal Analyst’s Office, 2005).

The application of the Three Strikes law to non-violent, non-serious offences has resulted in many offenders receiving extended sentences at an exorbitant cost to the state. Law makers in California assert that the Three Strikes law is responsible for the sharp decline in crime rates since it was enacted, although research shows that the crime rate was already declining before the law took effect and that it continued at the same rate of decline after it took effect, essentially making the law’s effectiveness on reducing the crime rate small to negligible at best. Proponents of the law argued that it would work because it would incapacitate repeat offenders for longer periods of time, however since a decline in the crime rate was seen almost immediately after the law took effect and too soon for it to have actually made any type of difference, proponents shifted their reasoning to one of deterrence. Three strikes has had a significant effect on the size of the prison population that will continue to grow over time as those imprisoned under the law age. Hickey (2007) suggests that older prisoners are a low social risk since most offenders become less criminally active as they are, so they are less likely to commit crimes if they are set free. These older prisoners also cost that state more money to keep than younger, healthier offenders since they require more medical care. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (2000, cited in Hickey, 2007) projected that in 2010, prisons in the United States would have more than 200,000 elderly inmates requiring special treatment and advanced medical care, at an average cost of $75,000 per inmate. This amounts to a cost of about $15 billion annually for the confinement of inmates who, overall, represent little threat to society. Diverting elderly inmates into less expensive community based correctional programs appears to be able to provide the greatest benefit for society in significantly decreasing costs for imprisonment while still permanently confining those who represent a continuing menace to society such as murderers (Hickey, 2007).

The Three Strikes law was designed to reduce crime in two ways, through incapacitation by removing repeat offenders from communities for longer periods of time eliminating their ability to commit new crimes during that time period, and through deterrence by the severity of the punishment in its ability to deter potential criminals. Some early research suggests that a large portion of the decline in the crime rate in California was due to the passage of the Three Strikes law while other research such as that conducted by the RAND Institute suggest far lesser impact on a crime rate that was already declining. Interestingly enough, in 2004, voters in California considered a measure to revise the Three Strikes law. While the measure did not pass, it did suggest support for reconsideration of the aspect of the law providing sentences of 25 years to life for offenders whose most recent crime is non-violent and non-serious. Passage of the measure would have resulted in significant savings to the state in the form of several hundred million dollars annually (Hickey, 2010).

Laws like Three Strikes laws that saw increasing passage in the 1980s and 1990s have not lived to up their original intentions. California’s Three Strikes law was purported to incapacitate repeat offenders and deter new offenders in an effort to decrease the overall crime rate. Since crime rates were already declining in California, the measure has little additional effect on the crime rates. The largest effect of the law is the significant increase in the cost of incarceration of offenders due to longer sentences and an aging inmate population. The control of crime by this law and others like it has been ineffective at best and extremely costly to the state in terms of resources. While providing the public with a sense of safety may be needed, disregard for the actual effects and costs of policies should also be avoided, since few things have the intended effect, especially when it comes to crime control policy.


Garland, D. (2001). The Culture of Control: Crime Control and Social Order in Contemporary Society. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Hickey, T. (2010). Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Crime and Criminology [9th ed.]. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Hickey, T. (2007). Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Criminal Justice. Dubuque, IA: McGraw-Hill Contemporary Learning Series.

Legislative Analyst’s Office (2005). A Primer: Three Strikes – The Impact After More than a Decade. Retrieved from