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. 2/3 |

Given the narrow scope of Initiative 593, significant reductions in rates were not expected since the law, by design, applies to relatively few offenders (Dickey & Hollenhorst, 1999). However, within four months following its implementation, a dozen violent criminals; rapists, assaulters, child molesters, and robbers, each with several prior convictions who generally preyed on women and the elderly, were sentenced to life in prison. Notably, one of these offenders, Michael Johnson, was actually a fourth-striker, since he had committed three prior felonies before 1993. His final conviction was the result of his decision to kidnap and repeatedly rape a 16 year-old girl at knifepoint. Larry Fisher was also sentenced under Initiative 593 following his commission of an armed robbery which became his 17th conviction; six of which were felonies (LaCourse, 1994, pp. 422-423). Unfortunately, multiple violent felony offenses are not uncommon for repeat criminals like Johnson and Fisher. In hindsight, perhaps the only regret attached to Initiative 593 is that earlier passage may have prevented several rapes, robberies, and assaults in the State of Washington.

Impact of Three Strikes on National Crime Trends

Chen (2008) analyzed state-level crime data for the entire United States, with particular attention paid to three strikes states, from 1986 to 2005 in order to quantify the efficacy of the legislation pursuant to deterrence and incapacitation. Therein, seven separate offenses were trended; murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny/theft, and motor vehicle theft. The primary purpose of the study was to determine the impact of other three strikes states’ laws as compared to California’s. This was done in order to discern which variations of the legislation had produced the most significant results. Theoretically, the California law would have had a greater impact on crime rates than did comparable laws in other states given its scope and frequency of application. Moreover, rates for instrumental crimes (e.g. burglary, larceny) should have fallen more dramatically, considering that these crimes generally involve more forethought and could be more easily deterred.

An evaluation of the data revealed that three strikes states experienced a slower decline in most areas of crime prior to the implementation of their laws when compared to other states, which may have been responsible for the laws’ initial gravitas among citizens and policy-makers. Interestingly, murder rates in three strikes states declined 12.9 percent less rapidly than the national trend, indicating that the fear of mandatory sentencing may have motivated certain criminals to eliminate witnesses and visit violence upon arresting officers (Chen, 2008, p. 360). Nonetheless, this trend was not especially pronounced in California as would have been expected (Johnson & Saint-Germain, 2005). Additionally, crime rates for instrumental offenses fell annually at rates ranging from about 1 to 3 percent more rapidly in three strikes states when adjusted for the preexisting nationwide crime rate reduction trend. However, this cannot be attributed comprehensively to the legislation since these crimes are not covered under most states’ three strikes provisions. Accordingly, few statistically significant declines and no additional incapacitation effects were observed for instrumental crimes in three strikes states (Chen, 2008, p. 357). Moreover, in their analysis of 188 metropolitan statistical areas, Kovandzic, Sloan, and Vieraitis (2004, p. 222) affirmed that cities in three strikes states did not experience any significant reductions in crime rates independent of the national trend as illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2: UCR Index Offense Rates for Cities with 100k+ Population, 1980-2001
Figure 2: UCR Index Offense Rates for Cities with 100k+ Population, 1980-2001
Source: Kovandzic V, T., Sloan III, J. J., & Vieraitis, L. M. (2004). “Striking out” as crime reduction policy: The impact of “Three Strikes” laws on crime rates in U.S. cities. Justice Quarterly, 21(2), 207-239.

Effect on Prison Populations

In the past three decades, the American custodial system has expanded by over 400 percent following a period of stability which had survived for more than half a century as shown in Figure 3 (Pfaff, 2008, p. 550). The United States currently houses more than one-quarter of the global prison population with over two million inmates and nearly seven million parolees and probationers (Gottschalk, 2006, p. 1694). Collectively, states currently spend approximately $43 billion on corrections annually (Pfaff, 2008, p. 547). Nevertheless, it is 17 times more expensive for a society to have high-rate repeat offenders on the street rather than incarcerated (LaCourse, 1994, p. 422). This is representative not only of how American society regards its marginalized citizens, but of how its governing bodies allocate financial resources and respond to paradigm shifts in crime and social disorder (Pfaff, 2008). It was in response to such a shift, in the middle of the prison population explosion, that three strikes laws were first adopted.

Figure 3: United States Prison Population (1925-2004)
Figure 3: United States Prison Population (1925-2004)
Source: Pfaff, J. F. (2008). The empirics of prison growth: A critical review and path forward. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 98(2), 547-619.

Between 1984 and 1994, the California prison system received a more than 200 percent increase in funding. During that time, the State erected 21 new prisons (Irwin, Schiraldi, & Ziedenberg, 2000, p. 139). Notably, this asset reallocation occurred prior to the enactment of the State’s three strikes law and was necessitated by the nationwide prison population explosion. Mandatory sentencing was projected to cost California taxpayers about $16,300 annually at the correctional level per serious crime prevented (Meehan, 2000, pp. 25-26). By 2008, California had imprisoned more than 250 times the number of offenders under mandatory sentencing law than any other three strikes state (Chen, 2008, p. 350). Due to constraints on population growth in already grossly overpopulated facilities, entry into the correctional system by inmates with mandatory sentences occasionally required the release of current prisoners. Thereby, incapacitation effects would materialize only if the paroled offenders were less likely to commit crimes than those who remained incarcerated under three strikes law. Consequently, some researchers have contended that the disproportional representation of nonviolent offenders in the California prison population is attributable to mandatory sentencing (Meehan, 2000). Indeed, the nonviolent prisoner population therein has grown substantially since 1980. However, Table 2 shows that drug offenders account for a significant portion of the expansion. Therefore, the increasing prevalence of nonviolent offenders in the California custodial system may be influenced primarily by federal War on Drugs policies and not solely correlated with three strikes law, though the two may be inextricably linked (Auerhahn, 2004).

Table 2: California Prison Population, 1980 -1998


Prison Population

Drug Prisoner Population

Percent Drug




10 %




21 %




28 %




31 %




32 %

Source: Auerhahn, K. (2004). California’s incarcerated drug offender population, yesterday, today, and tomorrow: Evaluating the War on Drugs and Proposition 36. Journal of Drug Issues, 34(1), 95-120.

Moreover, if incarceration of the prophesized influx of strikers had necessitated the release of myriad current prisoners, the trend should be identifiable in California’s parolee population. If critics were correct in their presumptions, the number of parolees therein should have increased noticeably through the late-1990s following the enactment of the State’s habitual offender statute. However, Figure 4 shows that this projected expansion has not occurred. The most dramatic rises in parolee releases occurred prior to the passage of California’s three strikes law in 1994. Parolee population increases ranging from 6 to 12 percent were observed in subsequent years before entering into a three-year period of stability beginning in 1999 which was followed by two consecutive years of decline; -7 percent in 2002 and -2 percent in 2003 (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 2008, p. 8a). These data convey that three strikes law has not directly influenced parolee population growth in California even though a significant number of strikers have been incarcerated.

Figure 4: Total Felon Releases to Parole in California (1987-2000)
Figure 4: Total Felon Releases to Parole in California (1987-2000)
Source: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. (2008). Historical Trends, 1987-2007. Sacramento, CA: Offender Information Services Branch.

Washington has also not experienced an increased burden on correctional facilities as a result of mandatory sentencing, perhaps partially due to infrequent employment of Initiative 593. Nonetheless, within five years of the law’s enactment, nearly half of all offenders serving life without parole in Washington were third-strikers (Dickey & Hollenhorst, 1999, p. 8). The State’s prison population was expected to grow by 9 percent over a 20-year period. However, even this manageable figure was not met in the first year and future estimates were lowered accordingly (LaCourse, 1994, p. 423). Using data provided by the Washington State Department of Corrections (2012), Figure 5 illustrates the relatively stable growth of the State’s prison population. Notably, no significant increase independent of the existing trend was observed following the State’s enactment of three strikes law in December of 1993 or after the passage a separate two-strike provision in 1996.

Figure 5: Washington State Prison Population (1990-2000)
Figure 5: Washington State Prison Population (1990-2000)
Source: Washington State Department of Corrections. (2012). Major sentencing changes impacting community supervision caseloads and prison population. Olympia: Washington Statistical Analysis Center.

An unanticipated consequence of the Washington’s three strikes law, given its narrow scope, was its significant deterrence effect. Instances of rape, robbery, and aggravated assault have declined noticeably (Dickey & Hollenhorst, 1999, p. 8). Law enforcement, legal, and corrections professionals have stated that many current and former inmates have expressed concern and requested information such as which crimes are covered by three strikes law. Moreover, a subsequent micro-exodus of criminals has resulted. Numerous second-strikers, particularly sex offenders, have relocated outside of the State since 1993. Many of those second-strike offenders who remained voluntarily sought treatment and enrolled in rehabilitation programs, some at their own expense, immediately after Initiative 593 went into effect (LaCourse, 1994, pp. 423-242). It is apparent that Washington’s mandatory sentencing guidelines have produced a strong deterrence effect and have the potential to convince some repeat offenders to reconsider their lives of crime. Many of those who have not been deterred have decided to relocate, which substantiates the efficacy of Initiative 593 within the State’s borders.

When the first three strikes statutes were enacted, opponents argued that prison systems would be overwhelmed with resultant population increases. However, the number of offenders sentenced during the first three years of Washington’s legislation was actually 63 percent lower than the maximum expectation. Moreover, mandatory sentencing data compelled corrections officials in California to lower their five year incarceration projections by 40,000 inmates. The dismal figures proposed by early critics have not been realized because most three strikes laws target the type of violent repeat offenders who were already receiving lengthy prison terms under existing legislation (Gatland, 1998). During the early-1990s, California and Washington experienced significant increases in their prison populations which contributed to policy makers’ decision to implement three strikes legislation. In both states, it appears that mandatory sentencing may have actually mediated the growth in subsequent years.

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