Does the Three-Strikes Law Work?

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Does the Three-Strikes Law Work?


Three-strikes law has always been popular among ordinary Americans who want to live in peace. They believe that excessively kind-hearted judges convert courts into unserious institutions, and criminals walk around the streets of cities with dozens of previous arrests and convictions being the result of their irresponsible actions (King & Mauer, 2001).

The purpose of this essay is to investigate the essence of three-strikes law. Three-strikes law is a measure that allows society to get rid of the repeat offenders who do not want to be corrected. This law requires judges to impose extremely severe sentences for persons convicted for the third time. The idea is that a person may commit an offense by mistake, at youth or for the company. Two crimes strongly suggest a consistent pattern, but the third crime accurately exposes repeat offenders who do not deserve leniency (Walsh, 2007).

The paper provides a little historical discourse of the law, describes it, and determines its main operating principle. Further, the main emphasis is laid on the three-strikes law application in California, since this state has the harshest form of the law (Thompson, 2008) and, therefore, represents the greatest interest for the study. At the end, several weak points of the law were considered and some alternative approaches were put forward. Suggestions provided in the conclusion part of this paper may be useful in drawing up prevention measures of the crime problem at the state level.





Does the Three-Strikes Law Work?


There are three main approaches in the fight against crime: toughening of punishments, crime prevention through a variety of techniques to adapt the socially disadvantaged individuals, and the creation of favorable conditions for crime self-control by giving freedom to people in self-defense matters. Practice shows clearly enough that the latter method is the most effective one, but it does not mean that these approaches are in some contradiction to each other.

Therefore, one should look at the positive experience of California that did manage to maintain a relatively average level of crime despite the extremely unfavorable criminal situation (proximity to the southern boundary and intense ethnic condition). It has implemented such a legal doctrine as the three-strikes law. Although most other states have the three-strikes law too, California is a state where this legal doctrine is expressed in the harshest form, providing virtually a life sentence without parole in the case of a third violent crime, even if it is not very serious. This measure actually allows society to get rid of the repeat offenders who do not want to be corrected.

Three-Strikes Law

The first mandatory three-strikes law was passed in 1993 in Washington state in a referendum (Walsh, 2007). Similar laws were soon adopted in many other states, but none of them were as strict as in California. By 2004, 26 states have passed the laws that implement the concept of “three strikes”, namely the third offense entails life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a long time, or a more common variant, a 25-year prison sentence (Helland & Tabarrok, 2003).

Conditions for the application of the law are different in each state. In some states, it is applied only if all three crimes were related to violence and the offender has already served time in prison. In others, especially in California, the offender receives a long prison term if the previous two crimes were violent or just “serious”.

According to the records of the California Department of Justice and the Department of Corrections, the number of such crimes as murder, rape, robbery, armed assault, and vehicle theft was 8,825,353 during 10 years before the enactment of the three-strikes law, while their number decreased to 6,780,964 for 10 years after the introduction of the law into force (Reynolds, 2005). However, the downward trend in the number of offenses was observed at this time across the United States, even in the states where such laws had not been introduced (Gilmore, 2007).

There was a rumor that adoption of the law will require the construction of a large number of new prisons. However, 19 new prisons were built in California during 10 years before the adoption of the law, and not a single prison was built after the law adoption during the next 10 years. Nevertheless, overcrowding situation still worsened due to the increase in the number of prisoners (Thompson, 2008). In addition, there is concern that the perpetrators of the third offense will have more reason to try to avoid the punishment, and this fact will increase the number of attacks on police officers. However, it is unknown whether the above-mentioned criminals will be more aggressive and whether they will seek to kill police officers (Moody, Marvell, & Kaminski, 2002).

Consequences of adopting the law are assessed rather ambiguously. In California, the issue is particularly acute because even small thefts from supermarkets can be classified as a serious crime, if a thief has previously been convicted for theft, burglary, or robbery. For example, some criminals were sentenced to 25 or more years in prison for crimes such as petty theft in the golf club (the thief was previously convicted for burglary and robbery with the use of a knife), theft of nine videotapes (the thief was previously sentenced for robbing houses), or violent assault and stealing pizza from a group of children (the thief was involved in four previous non-violent crimes, the term subsequently reduced to six years) (Walsh, 2007).

In California, the number of trials is not taken into account in counting the number of previous offenses for the application of the law, but the number of counts in the indictment by which the defendant was convicted. This circumstance potentially expands the number of cases in which the law can be applied. Moreover, all the crimes committed by the defendants in the past, including cases that were considered by courts of all states and federal court, regardless of the dates of the transactions, including the sentences on the basis of plea bargain, are taken into account. The only exceptions are some sentences for juveniles (Walsh, 2007).

Three-strikes law can be applied to the defendants who were found guilty no matter how earlier (even before the age of majority) for more than one count, even if they were judged once, in the case if they commit any serious offense involving violence or theft of any size, or an offense connected with the storage of prohibited substances. In this case, they can be sentenced from 25 years of imprisonment to life sentence. For example, the defendant, who was convicted of two burglaries in the teenage age 20 years ago, will be convicted according to the three-strikes law even if he is now accused only for petty theft or possession of prohibited substances (Walsh, 2007).

Three-strikes law can be applied to the defendant repeatedly in the presence of more than one charge item. In this case, the addition of prison terms is possible. As a result, the defendant will receive a sentence of several consecutive prison terms the total duration of which will be 50 (or 75, or 100) years. Thus, the thief of nine videotapes was sentenced to 50 years in prison without the possibility of parole (Walsh, 2007).

In 2007, the total number of prisoners in California exceeded 170,000 people despite the fact that the project number of prisoners in state prisons is 83000 (King & Mauer, 2001). Thus, the majority of prisons are overcrowded almost by half. Moreover, the term “project number of prisoners” is used exclusively by the California Department of Corrections. According to independent estimates, based on the standards of the American Association of correctional institutions, prisons lack 16600 seats (King & Mauer, 2001). Every year, state government has to solve the problem with overcrowding in correctional facilities. Such methods are used: transfer of the prisoners in compulsory drug treatment centers, early release of prisoners, the construction of new prisons, and transfer of some prisoners in federal prisons or in private correctional facilities with which the state has signed the relevant agreements (Walsh, 2007).

It should be noted that the medical care and conditions of detention in a number of correctional facilities have been recognized by the Federal Court as bad or even inhumane, resulting in fact that the government had to take them under special control. Contributing to the increase in the number of prisoners, three-strikes law only worsened the situation. As a result, the practice of sentencing based on the three-strikes law is publicly criticized not only in the USA but in other countries too (Campbell, 2002).

The number of prisoners in California has increased by 400% during 10 years before the adoption of the law, and during 10 years after its adoption – only by 25.5% (Reynolds, 2005). It is a clear indicator of effectiveness of this measure. Crime rates have been decreasing in both the USA and a single California over the years. However, positive changes in most states can be explained by the liberalization of arms trafficking. Liberalization of arms trafficking was not practically observed in California, thus positive changes of crime dynamics in California can be explained by the implementation of three-strikes law measure that toughens responsibility of repeat offenders (at the same time, a consumer boom of affordable credit and economic growth have also contributed to the positive changes) (King & Mauer, 2001).

Accordingly, it is logical to assume that the combination of these measures and policies aimed at facilitating opportunities for civil defense and at the same time at the tightening of the government sanctions against antisocial behavior would lead to a cumulative effect in the fight against crime. However, a number of details should be taken into account. For example, California citizens found it was not logical to jail drug addicts condemned for drug possession for life term. Therefore, together with the radical increase of penalties for recidivism, there were introduced standards that provide not a jail time, but a compulsory treatment of drug addicts caught storing illegal drugs (Gilmore, 2007).

A significant weak point of this approach is the problem of congestion in prisons because of which human right activists are now seeking ways to cancel this rule. It is important to note that it is necessary to separate the spirit of the three-strikes law from its technical implementation parts. In particular, the elderly persons who represent a lower risk of the crime should have the right of parole. Indeed, in terms of development of remote tracking technologies, there is no sense at all in isolation of criminals in prisons, especially if there is a combination of lifelong wearing of remote monitoring bracelets (and their analogues) with substantial penalties for not serious crimes and death penalties. For example, this combination can be used in the case of robbery and rape with causing bodily harm by repeat offenders, even if these crimes were not accompanied by murder.

Murder crimes, except for accidental deaths (it is possible to accurately check the “accidentalness” of crime using modern technologies) should be punished with death, regardless of the degree of criminal recidivism. However, even within the prison isolation, a person can organize his or her labor activity and self-sufficiency of imprisonment, especially if one put the prisoner in terms of the need to self-pay for the food and health insurance. In this case, it is meaningless to talk about some “human rights” of criminals, because the meaning of legal relations is mutual agreement to fulfill them, so unilateral violation of these rights by the offender should automatically deprive of all the rights of its own.


Three-strikes law allows society to get rid of the repeat offenders who do not want to be corrected. Based on the foregoing, it might be said that three-strikes law works, but it causes a lot of inconveniences that cut off the positive effect of this measure to some extent. The author would like to express the hope that the three-strikes law will be adopted once in the countries all over the world, taking into account all of the above specified details. After all, 50% of violent crimes are committed by previously convicted criminals, and this law can cause a significant blow exactly to this segment of the deviant behavior. However, it is important to understand that the empowerment of civil defense in any case will be more important and efficient, and therefore will have more priority over all other measures, including three-strikes law.