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State’s Three Strikes Law Strikes Out

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State's Three Strikes Law Strikes Out

By Janet Gilmore, Public Affairs
Posted November 10, 1999

California's "Three Strikes and You're Out" law may have been designed to strike fear in the heart of habitual, violent criminals by mandating harsher penalties including a 25-year-to-life prison sentence for some offenders. But a study raises doubts that the Three Strikes law has played a significant role in California's drop in crime.

According to the study released by law Professor Franklin Zimring, repeat felons continue to be arrested for new felonies today in roughly the same proportion that they were arrested before the 1994 law went into effect.

"It's the same old, same old," said Zimring. "Three strikes only increased penalties for special groups of repeat offenders.

"If California's crime decline were a Three Strikes effect, we would expect to see the drop in arrests concentrated among the targeted groups. Instead, the decline is spread evenly over the 90 percent of all potential offenders not affected by Three Strikes and the 10 percent who were. That sure doesn't look like a Three Strikes effect to us."

Zimring's new report, "Crime and Punishment in California: The Impact of Three Strikes and You're Out," is published by the Institute of Governmental Studies Press.

It is the first quantitative study to examine whether Three Strikes is indeed deterring its target audience -- criminals already convicted of at least one serious or violent felony.

Three Strikes, which was signed into law in March 1994, targets criminals with one or two serious or violent felony convictions on their records. These crimes, a particular list of offenses that count as strikes, include residential burglary, murder, attempted murder, rape, robbery and arson.

An offender who already had one strike on his or her record would face double the nominal prison term once convicted of any new felony -- not just those defined as strikes. In addition, the offender would have to complete 85 percent of the sentence before release from prison.

An offender with two existing strikes on his or her record would be sentenced to 25-years-to-life when convicted of any third felony -- this third felony could be any felony offense including theft.

Zimring's report suggests that these tough statutes have had no measurable impact on crime in California.

Before Three Strikes went into effect, individuals with one or two strikes on their record were responsible for 13.9 percent of all adult felony arrests in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, the three cities studied. After the law went into effect, that number changed only slightly, dropping to 12.8 percent of arrests, according to Zimring.

"The study's design was there to pick up even a little bit of deterrence," Zimring states in his report. "This was the most sensitive design; if there'd been a 2 percent change we would have found it."

The report also found no spillover deterrent effect among felons who were not targets of the new law but may have refrained from new criminal acts out of a mistaken belief that the law would apply to them.

Before Three Strikes, 44.8 percent of all felony arrests involved suspects with any kind of felony conviction on their record -- property crimes or more serious and violent offenses. After Three Strikes, that proportion remained essentially the same, 45.4 percent.

Proponents of the Three Strikes law anticipated that it would create a drop in violent crime because serious repeat felons would be kept off the street and placed in prison for lengthy sentences. And if this group were indeed committing the most crimes, and the most serious, an overall drop in serious crimes would result.



November 10 - 16, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 14)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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