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. 3/3 |

Public Perception of Three Strikes

Regardless of arrest and crime reduction statistics, citizens often cite crime as their primary concern when randomly polled. Most often, repeat violent and sex offenders garner the most fear among the populace even at times when crime rates for these offenses are down. This public fear was largely responsible for the romanticized promises which ultimately materialized into mandatory sentencing laws in the 1990s (Dickey & Hollenhorst, 1999). Fear of crime can also be attributed to the victims’ movement, which brought violent and sex crimes into the public eye and rekindled the case for restorative justice. Unlike in the past, contemporary victims of violent crime have come forward to express their personal suffering and bring attention to a formerly abstract social problem. In order to appease the masses, law makers across the United States were compelled to implement three strikes laws; most aimed specifically at violent and sex offenders (Berliner, 1994).

Neither California nor Washington experienced dramatic reductions in crime rates; though for different reasons respectively. The recognizable difference observed following the passage of mandatory sentencing legislation has been public perception, even though both initiatives were originally passed by large voter margins. The Justice Policy Institute (2004) has recommended that California abandon or significantly modify its three strikes policy due to budget concerns and lack of positive outcomes. Subsequently, a ballot initiative and state Senate bill were introduced which aimed to bring California’s mandatory sentencing guidelines more in line with those of other states by reducing the number of crimes regarded as qualifying felonies; both failed at the polls partially due to a multi-million dollar gubernatorial-sponsored media campaign (Chen, 2008). Contrarily, Initiative 593 has been largely embraced by the public. The Washington media has covered stories wherein inmates proclaimed their fear of “Three Strike and You’re Out” (LaCourse, 1994). Thereby, citizens felt that their communities were being protected by mandatory sentencing legislation, even though it had not produced an overwhelming reduction in violent crime rates. Perhaps, the honesty of Washington politicians regarding the limited applicability and realistic expectations of three strikes in their state is responsible for the resultant public support. Moreover, Washington law makers proved to their constituents that Initiative 593 has been cost-effective; which their counterparts in California were unable to accomplish (Dickey & Hollenhorst, 1999). Three strikes law in Washington appears to have improved public perception of the criminal justice system even in the absence of impressive crime reduction statistics.

Conclusion and Reflection

The efficacy of three strikes laws has been a topic of contention among criminal justice practitioners and researchers since the first such piece of legislation was implemented in the United States nearly two decades ago. Chen (2008) concluded that crime rates in three strikes states had declined slower than the national average prior to their laws’ enactment. The resultant public fear of crime prompted a legislative response via mandatory sentencing guidelines (Berliner, 1994). Nonetheless, states which have implemented three strikes laws have not experienced reductions in violent crime rates to any greater extent than those with no such legislation (Kovandzic, Sloan, & Vieraitis, 2004).

The opposition’s expectation of a prison population explosion has not materialized. Three strikes states have not suffered a noticeable increase in incarceration rates subsequent to the implementation of mandatory sentencing laws as predicted by critics (Gatland, 1998). Even in states where three strikes was expected to have a major impact, projections were unfounded and very little impact has been felt directly by the courts and corrections systems in most jurisdictions (Austin et al., 1999). Some researchers contend that the disproportionate representation of nonviolent offenders within the California prison population may compromise the long-term cogency of mandatory sentencing (Irwin et al., 2000). However, the expansion of this prisoner demographic does not appear to have been directly caused by three strikes law and may be better explained through evaluations of existing War on Drugs initiatives (Auerhahn, 2004).

Although the limited applicability of most states’ mandatory sentencing guidelines is unlikely to produce significant incapacitation and deterrence effects, Washington has demonstrated that such legislation can effectively target violent repeat offenders and reduce fear of crime (LaCourse, 1994). Additionally, properly tailored three strikes laws have had a demonstrable impact on instrumental crimes over time. It seems plausible that this effect could be the result of residual deterrence as offenders become less certain as to the likelihood of apprehension and increasingly fearful of mandatory sentencing (Chen, 2008). This popular legislative response to crime is in need of revision concerning the scope of crimes regarded as qualifying felonies in some jurisdictions, particularly California. The broad-brush approach to violent crime has proven wholly ineffective. An efficacious legislative response must be necessarily targeted upon violent repeat offenders in order to legitimately improve public safety and reduce fear of crime.


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