Three-strikes law fails to reduce crime

February 28, 2012, University of California - Riverside
UC Riverside sociologist Robert Nash Parker says that California's three-strikes law is not the cause of the state's declining crime rate. Rather the lower crime rate is linked to a declining rate of alcohol consumption. Credit: University of California, Riverside

California's three-strikes law has not reduced violent crime, but has contributed significantly to the state's financial woes by substantially increasing the prison population, according to a University of California, Riverside researcher.

Declining in California and nationwide reflect declines in , not tough-on-crime policies such as three-strikes laws, says Robert Nash Parker, a and director of the Presley Center for Crime and Justice Studies at UCR.

Parker, who is known internationally for groundbreaking research on the relationship between alcohol policies and crime, details those findings in "Worse Policy After Bad: How and Why California's 'Three Strikes' is a Complete Failure as Crime and Economic Policy, and What to Do About Either," which will appear in the spring issue of California Journal of Politics and Policy.

Three-strikes legislation, which took effect in 1994, was intended to incarcerate so-called "career criminals" for 25 years to life upon a third conviction, even when the third offense was a nonviolent crime. California's crime rate has been cut in half in the last 20 years — a decline that began two years before the implementation of three-strikes legislation.

"Political leaders, activists, law enforcement personnel, and elected officials in California believe the state's three-strikes law is the cause of this magnificent decline in violence," Parker said. "That is not the case. Three-strikes has had nothing whatsoever to do with the drop in violent crime."

Analyzing national crime data, Parker found that crime in California has declined at rates similar to states with three-strikes policies and those without — including large states with no three-strikes laws such as Texas, New York and Illinois — and found little difference. "This suggests that whatever is driving the trend in over the last 46 years in these states it is not three-strikes policy," Parker concluded.

A National Institute of Justice review of three-strikes legislation found that California imprisoned roughly 300 times the number of inmates as did the state of Washington, which enacted a three-strikes law about the same time as California. California's population is about 5.5 times as large as that of Washington.

"Differences between California's three-strikes law and those of Washington and other states explains this difference," Parker said. "California increased its prison population significantly yet obtained roughly the same crime drop at the same time as states that had similar laws, but without their impact, as well as that obtained by states that did not pass any laws aimed at reducing violence through vast increase in the ."

In earlier research, Parker found that homicide rates nationally correlate with alcohol consumption and unemployment rates. Since the 1930s, an increase in alcohol consumption has occurred one to two years before an upturn in homicide rates, and has decreased one to two years before a downturn in homicide rates. Nationwide, alcohol consumption peaked in 1982 and has declined significantly and steadily since.

"There is no justification for continuing three-strikes from a violence-prevention point of view," Parker says. "My analysis suggests that alcohol policy designed to reduce overall consumption in California may be more effective at reducing violence than three-strikes or other criminal justice policy initiatives."

The economic impact on California has been devastating, Parker added. Although the state's financial troubles are complex, three-strikes has amplified those problems by consuming an ever-larger portion of the general fund budget each year.

For example, in 1985 spending on higher education consumed about 11 percent of the general fund, while prison funding accounted for about 4 percent. By 2010, spending on higher education accounted for less than 6 percent of total spending while prison costs consumed about 10 percent.

The state auditor estimates that future prison costs attributable to three-strikes sentencing range from $19 billion to $23 billion annually, perhaps more, depending on how the state responds to the 2011 U.S. Supreme Court order to release 40,000 inmates from overcrowded prisons. In response to that order, the Legislature plans to divert most of those inmates to county jails, with the state bearing some of the costs.

If inmates sentenced under three-strikes were released immediately, the state and counties would save about $1.3 billion immediately, and likely more in coming years, according to the auditor's report.

"If three strikes has resulted in all this incarceration and expense, yet has little to do with controlling , why not release these inmates?" Parker asked. "The state of California should give up its addiction to the all-you-can eat buffet of imprisonment, the result of which has been to undermine the financial health of the state, weaken the quality of education at all levels, and force California to make draconian cuts in programs that enhance and benefit the lives of its residents in exchange for a mistaken idea that public safety was the result. The bottom-line result of three-strikes has been an almost unbearable financial burden that looms in the future despite current efforts, and which will only be resolved when the pipeline of over-punishment is finally shut down."

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2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 28, 2012
Yea,right! Armed robbery give them a ticket and some food stamps and a housing allowance. Gang violence, they are just misunderstood and need some hugs. Drugs, no problem just set up little kiosks on each corner selling meth, crack and heroin with a big sign saying "We take food stamps.". Of course you will have to modify all of the street sweepers to accept dead bodies but that should not cost too much.
3 / 5 (2) Feb 28, 2012
This is just an article urging the control of alcohol. It is not even about three strikes except that the author wants three strikes laws rescinded.

I wonder how you go about getting your opinion on social matters published as if it were a scholarly work?
1 / 5 (1) Feb 28, 2012
Sure Dogbert all the gang violence in California is just due the boyz partying it up on Friday night. And all those drug dealers behind bars could become respected local merchants if only we modernized our drug laws. And everybody could gather round the old campfire and sing Kumbaya if it were not the lousy 1% stealing all of the money.
3 / 5 (4) Feb 28, 2012
Do you have an opinion on something? From your comments it is not clear what you mean or want except that you seem focused on gang violence -- something the article did not mention.
not rated yet Feb 29, 2012
Yea,right! Armed robbery give them a ticket and some food stamps and a housing allowance. Gang violence, they are just misunderstood and need some hugs. Drugs, no problem just set up little kiosks on each corner selling meth, crack and heroin with a big sign saying "We take food stamps.". Of course you will have to modify all of the street sweepers to accept dead bodies but that should not cost too much.

Ironically, and look up that word because I'm sure you think it means something other than what it actually does, most people who are most vocally against food stamps would benefit from them. I think someone is below or close to the poverty line.

This article was about the failure of certain legislation and misleading science and numbers that support said legislation. Not about social reform, or hippies or ethnic people.

While you're looking things up, check out crack laws in the 80s and prison population.
not rated yet Feb 29, 2012
The author had me all the way to the last paragraph. I thought this was an unbiased study until the author began making sweeping generalizations, most specifically when he describes the three strikes law as a pipeline of over-punishment. Is that so? How did he conclude that ALL the sentences imposed under Penal Code Sections 667(c) and 1192.7 (the three strikes laws) are over-punisment? Did he review each and every judgment since 1994? Of course not. Unfortunately, his statements seem clearly biased and damage his credability, at least in my eyes.

I deal with California's sentencing laws on a daily basis, I find that most three strike offenders are pretty bad fellows, and our judges have the discretion to strike prior strikes (Romero Motion) if the punishment seems too harsh.

I agree: alcohol + unemployment seems to be a common thread with many offenders. However, letting a bunch of 3-strikers out would be very bad. Trust the judges on this one. Had more; Ran out of room
not rated yet Feb 29, 2012
Compare the trends in California to the trends in states without three-strike laws. If three-strike laws made a difference the other states would be worse off.

In regard to gangbangers, active gangsters will end up in jail even without three-strike laws. If you really want to crack down on organised crime, free up resources from the bloated prisons and invest them in building up specialist police units that track and repress active gangs.
not rated yet Feb 29, 2012
enlighten me : Some hypothetical examples
Defendant 1 : Auto theft , burglary ,marijuana possession offense :
Sentence 25 to life
Defendant 2 : Violent robbery ,Selling unlicensed weapons , manslaughter
Sentence 25 to life
Defendant 3 : Steeling cable tv ,causing damage to neighbors property , Moonshining (Alcohol production )
Sentence 25 to life
There's a qualitative difference in the nature of offenders above Essentially someone like Homer Simpson is treated as equal to Fat(mob boss) Tony. The three strike rule in an ultimatum .I would hope the judges in these cases use their own humanity and discretion which has it's own dangers.Example : A sentence may depend on the whims/opinions of the judge and not on their ability ,willingness to administer the law as it stands.
So it may be a defendants bad luck to appear in front of a highly opinionated judge and not the usual sentence inversely proportionally to the cost of the defense lawyer

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