Assessing the Impact of "Three Strikes" Laws on Crime Rates and Prison Populations in California and Washington

By Joshua A. Jones
2012, Vol. 4 No. 09 | pg. 1/3 |

Abstract

The efficacy of three strikes laws has been a topic of contention among researchers since the first such piece of legislation was implemented in the United States nearly two decades ago. With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to trend their impact through longitudinal analysis. This paper assesses the impact of three strikes legislation in California and Washington; two states which have implemented uniquely divergent forms of mandatory sentencing. It addresses the effect of three strikes law on trends and prison populations therein. Results indicated that mandatory sentencing was associated with declines in some areas of crime. However, the decline observed nationally was not proportional to the scope of variations in three strikes laws and the impact on correction institutions has been minimal. This popular legislative response to crime may be in need of revision, specifically regarding the scope of punishable offenses.

Three strikes laws have gained national popularity since the landmark passage of California’s “Three Strikes and You’re Out” sentencing guidelines in 1994. Subsequently, the federal government and most U.S. states have enacted or augmented similar mandatory sentencing laws and habitual offender statutes (Dickey & Hollenhorst, 1999). Ostensibly, early reductions in overall crime rates served as justification for three strikes advocates. However, many researchers attribute much of the phenomenon to preexisting trends independent of legislation, asserting that a comprehensive decline was observed in the 1990s throughout North America (Eskridge, 2004, pp. 15-23).

Regardless, early research studies were only able to analyze month-to-month trends and were largely confined to samples in one state (Stolzenberg & D’Alessio, 1997). Now that sufficient time has passed since the first three strikes law was implemented, more detailed longitudinal analyses have been published. Recent studies have indicated that these laws have not yielded results consistent with the initial hype. However, three strikes legislation appears to have modestly influenced crime reductions in some states (Kelly & Datta, 2009).

The rationale behind the passage of three strikes legislation by the U.S. Congress and over half of the individual states was that mandatory sentencing punishments would effectively deter criminals and protect the general public from those repeat offenders who remain unimpeded by amassing the convicted into the penal system under weighty prison terms (Peak, 2010, p. 312). However, Austin, Clark, Hardyman, and Henry (1999) contended that the legislation was actually drafted to be primarily symbolic in nature with little practicality, citing that previously existing crime prevention methods had already been employed by all of the three strikes states (pp. 138-142).

As shown in Table 1, most three strikes states intentionally adopted a minimalist approach to the application of these laws (Dickey & Hollenhorst, 1999, pp. 4-7). Accordingly, much of the initial governmental and academic scrutiny of mandatory sentencing focused on California’s zealous enforcement and not necessarily on the “striking out” concept itself (Chen, 2008). Critics argued that formidable mandatory sentences would bombard the courts with defendants who refused to plea bargain in favor of a trial by jury; thus burdening the legal system with excessive case loads, hindering its ability to facilitate speedy trials, and raising court costs to the state. Moreover, they contended that imposing lengthy sentences would prompt an increase in prison populations within already overpopulated facilities (Willis, 2007). Ergo, a series of decisions made by legislators had the potential to reverberate across the entire criminal justice system and into local communities.

Table 1: Use of Three Strikes Laws by State

Jurisdiction

Year Law Enacted

Number of Convictions

Data Current as of

Alaska

1996

1

8/98

Arkansas

1995

12

8/98

California

1994

40,511

7/98

Colorado

1994

2

8/98

Connecticut

1994

1

8/98

Florida

1995

116

6/98

Georgia

1994

942

3/98

Indiana

1994

38

7/98

Maryland

1994

5

12/97

Montana

1995

0

8/98

Nevada

1995

304

8/98

New Jersey

1995

6

8/98

New Mexico

1994

1

8/98

N. Carolina

1994

5

12/97

Pennsylvania

1995

3

12/96

S. Carolina

1995

825

10/97

Tennessee

1994

5

7/98

Utah

1995

0

8/98

Vermont

1995

4

8/98

Virginia

1994

0

8/98

Washington

1993

121

8/98

Wisconsin

1994

3

8/98

Federal

1994

35

10/97

*Kansas, Louisiana, and North Dakota excluded due to lack of data. Source: Dickey, W. J. & Hollenhorst, P. (1999). Three-strikes laws: Five years later. Corrections Management Quarterly, 3(3), 1-18.

Crime Rates in California and Washington

The State of California enacted the nation’s most infamous and farthest-reaching three strikes law in 1994. Therein, a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life in prison was established for any repeat offender convicted of three qualifying felonies. The most notable component of California’s habitual offender statute, contrary to most other states’ laws, is that qualifying felonies are not relegated to violent crimes alone. Moreover, California’s version of the law is markedly more punitive than others. Under the second-strike provision, if an offender has a prior serious or violent felony conviction, the sentence for a subsequent felony is automatically doubled. Similarly, a third felony conviction thereafter results in a third-strike sentence of 25 years to life (Willis, 2007). Ultimately, more than 60 separate felony offenses are regarded as strikes. By 2005, the broad nature of the California three strikes statute was responsible for over 87,500 second- and third-strike convictions (Chen, 2008, p. 345). Figure 1 illustrates the three strikes rate in California juxtaposed against the average rate for 21 other three strikes states (Justice Policy Institute, 2004, p. 6). These results convey that California’s habitual offender statute is demonstrably unique and rampantly employed.

Figure 1: Three Strikes Rates
Figure 1: Three Strikes Rates
Source: Justice Policy Institute. (2004). Three strikes and you’re out: An examination of the impact of 3-strikes laws 10 years after their enactment. Washington, DC: Author.

The shear scope of the law’s applicability has come at substantial monetary cost to the State’s taxpayers. Studies conducted prior to the enactment of the California mandatory sentencing guidelines projected a 25 percent crime reduction at an annual cost of $5.5 billion if the law were fully implemented, which it was not (Meehan, 2000, pp. 25-26). Subsequently, between 1994 and 1997, the total crime rate in California dropped by 20.2 percent with a 13.8 percent reduction in violent crime. However, a 1999 Justice Policy Institute study concluded that the reduction was in no way attributed to three strikes law because crime rates had already started to decline in other regions of the United States prior to the law’s implementation and declared that California’s mandatory sentencing legislation was a failure (Chen, 2008, p. 346).

Compared to California’s mandatory sentencing legislation, The State of Washington’s simple and comprehensible Initiative 593 is narrower in scope and far less punitive (Caulkins, 2001). Therein, anyone tried as an adult and convicted of three serious felonies on separate occasions receives a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Notably, spree offenses are counted as a single strike since the aim of the law is to incapacitate dangerous repeat offenders and distinguish their transgressions from crimes of passion. Also, unlike the California three strikes law which permits ample discretion by judges and allows them to dismiss prior strikes, only the Governor may grant a pardon or clemency under Initiative 593. One axiomatic distinction of Washington’s mandatory sentencing law is that only serious felony crimes such as murder, rape, assault, child molestation, and robbery are regarded as strikes. Thereby, only the most egregious 12 percent of the State’s felonies qualify under its three strikes law (LaCourse, 1994). Initiative 593 targets violent repeat offenders since research has affirmed that a meager 6 to 7 percent of the criminal population is responsible for over half of all violent crimes; to include three-quarters of rapes and robberies as well as almost all murders (Jennings, 2006, p. 38). Notably, the likelihood of recidivism into violent crime for a released third-striker is 76 percent. Hence, Initiative 593 is specifically applicable to this minute, albeit actively contributing, portion of the criminal population so as to impose the strictest penalty possible, sans execution, upon the most dangerous repeat offenders (LaCourse, 1994, p. 421).

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