Three Strikes law can't take credit for state's drop in crime, finds UC Berkeley law professor

By Janet Gilmore Public Affairs

Click here for photo of Frank Zimring

BERKELEY-- 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 an unprecedented new study raises doubts that the Three Strikes law has played a significant role in California's drop in crime.

According to a study released today (Monday, Nov. 8) by Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, 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, who released the report during a press conference at the California State Capitol. "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 at UC Berkeley.

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.

Zimring authored the report with Sam Kamin, an assistant professor of law at the University of Denver; and Gordon Hawkins, a senior fellow at UC Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall) and director emeritus of the Institute of Criminology at the University of Sydney.

They studied felony arrests in the three cities both before and after the Three Strikes law went into effect. They viewed 3,500 case samples - all involving individuals arrested in the three cities during the same month from 1993 to 1995.

Among the team's key findings:

· Under the best circumstances possible, Three Strikes could deter no more than one in 10

California felons from committing new crimes.

Among all suspects arrested for felony crimes, only 10.6 percent of them had at least one strike on their criminal record: 7.3 percent of them were eligible for prosecution as second strike defendants, 3.3 percent were eligible as third strikers.

· Criminals with one or two strikes on their record have no more of a tendency to be arrested for serious or violent felonies than other criminals.

The current offense for most of this group was drug or property crimes. Among individuals eligible for third-strike prosecution, only 20.6 percent had a current arrest for a violent crime.

· Compared to other felony suspects, individuals eligible for prosecution under the Three Strikes law tend to have a longer criminal history, they're typically older, more likely to be male and much more likely to be African-American.

· Prosecutors appear reluctant to prosecute individuals as third-strike offenders.

Between 30 and 60 percent of all second-strike cases are treated as such by prosecutors. Only 10 percent to 20 percent of three strike-eligible cases are prosecuted and convicted as such.

· Prosecutors are apparently using the threat of prosecution under the Three Strikes law to pressure criminal defendants to plead guilty and accept prison terms.

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 crimes, an overall drop in serious crimes would result.

In addition, the tough new law was expected to have a deterrent effect - repeat felons would not want to risk another arrest, conviction and possible life sentence.

Zimring said it is too soon to tell whether Three Strikes will have the long-term effect of reducing crimes by keeping more felons off the streets for many years.

But the study's finding that only one in every 30 big city felonies is committed by an offender eligible for the 25-to-life sentence puts a low upper limit on the long-term incapacitation effect.

Zimring's study also concludes that there is no reason to believe that Three Strikes is causing a deterrent effect leading to the drop in California crime. His report shows that the decline in California's violent crime rate follows the same statistical pattern as the drop in all other crimes in the state.

Twenty-six states and the federal government passed some version of the Three Strikes statute in the 1990s, said Zimring. He estimates that more than 90 percent of all Three Strikes sentences in the 27 jurisdictions with the law were handed down in California.

California's Three Strikes statute is much broader than any other such law, according to Zimring.


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