Is the three strikes law justified?

More states should pass and enforce “three strike” laws. These provisions mandate stiff sentences for career criminals—including (in certain states lacking Chelsea’s Law) some pedophiles who continue to victimize children even after serving time in correctional facilities for felony offenses.

In recent years, a few legal authorities have argued that prison overcrowding and fairness warrant discontinuing tough three strike sentencing provisions.

But while these statutes send some dishonest individuals to prison for lengthy periods of time, they do indeed make the rest of us safer. California passed a “three strikes and you’re out” law in 1994 and considerable evidence suggests that an estimated 10,000 people in the state have not become murder victims as a result.

Among the many reasons to promote these laws, three seem especially significant: opportunity costs at some point should favor victims and not perpetrators; three strike provisions apply exclusively to individuals who demonstrate a persistent, chronic unwillingness to rehabilitate antisocial conduct; and some ex-convicts actually may benefit as a result of the existence of three strike laws.

Argument one: Opportunity costs should favor victims

First, most Americans strongly believe in civil rights, and few statutes testify to this position more eloquently than “three strike” mandatory sentencing provisions. Courts in the United States, unlike those in some totalitarian nations, will allow people convicted of crimes more than a single opportunity to reform in prison.

Incarceration as a form of sentencing recognizes the issue of implicit opportunity costs. Judges sentence convicted individuals to serve time as punishment for specific offenses, but also in the hope that a prisoner will “rehabilitate” and reform during his or her enforced removal from society.

A subtle opportunity cost argument nestles within this logic, too… A prisoner may serve several years in confinement specifically in order to prevent him or her from persisting in very antisocial behavior on the outside. Thus a parole board may decline to free an inmate early if that person declares an intention to resume a life of crime upon release.

No one wants a robber set free too soon if that person will once again resort to stealing, for instance. The same holds true for many other potentially nonviolent but socially detrimental types of misconduct. A con artist can wreak havoc and pain in the lives of numerous other people; sometimes on an even wider scale than a gun-toting street mugger.

The legal system therefore favors the rights of the public to avoid victimization when nonviolent criminals receive terms in prison instead of simply being asked to perform restitution and some form of community service. The “opportunity cost” in that situation resolves in favor of the protection of law abiding folk from further harm.

One may view three strikes laws as carrying forward the opportunity cost analysis in favor of potential victims. After serving two previous separate felony sentences in succession, anyone convicted under a three strike provision has probably tipped the balance of opportunity cost away from an assessment that he or she will rehabilitate quickly.

Argument two: Lawbreakers with two successive previous felonies deserve stiff sentences

 Second, the types of sentencing statutes known as “three strike laws” apply only against a very select category of criminal defendants.  Only a person who has already been convicted previously of committing two prior serious criminal offenses on separate occasions and served time in confinement can face this type of severe sanction.

The “three strike” laws protect safety by removing apparent “career” criminals from the public arena for a long time through appropriately tough sentencing. Arguably, someone who has willfully broken the law before under these circumstances does not merit the leniency accorded to a first time offender. He or she has already had two chances to reform antisocial conduct, and has demonstrated a capacity and willingness to harm others when free.

An old saying comes to mind. “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice—shame on me!” When a third offense occurs, convicted felons usually deserve a stiff sentence.

Argument three: Three strike provisions may actually assist some former convicts

The existence of “three strike” provisions may also benefit some former convicts in a tangible manner. These laws offer a negative incentive that may reinforce good behavior.

For example, even if a paroled felon commits a seemingly “minor” infraction, that individual in a state with a three strike law could face the prospect of spending a very long period of time in prison. That sort of “tough love” motivation probably inspires some folks when lesser measures fail.

Thus, in some cases, perhaps an ex-offender may take steps to comply fully with routine minimal legal requirements which he or she might otherwise dismiss as unimportant. If three strike laws assist the rehabilitation efforts of even a comparatively small percentage of former inmates holding felony records, these provisions serve a useful purpose.

For instance, taxpayers generally want law enforcement dollars spent in the most effective possible manner. State law enforcement agencies should not have to waste resources in the form of manpower and time nagging former inmates to comply with some important basic and necessary (but sometimes overlooked) legal requirements:

Refraining from possessing firearms, attending scheduled meetings with parole officers on time and, in the case of many convicted sex offenders, registering current names and addresses with state patrols should be routine matters which parolees do not overlook. Paroled felons should be expected to willingly and promptly comply on their own volition with these basic tasks which are designed to protect the public.

Why should law enforcement officers have to engage in a “revolving door” process with some parolees, continually arresting or re-arresting noncompliant individuals who then return to prison for brief periods? They certainly have better ways to spend their time.

A felony offender who considers parole violations too minor to deserve attention might not find other requirements of the law very motivating, either, unless the cost of breaking rules simply becomes too high. Three strike provisions impose a significant penalty on noncompliance.

Additionally, the presence of a three strike statute may offer some impacted ex-convicts with felony records a greater incentive to obtain treatment for substance abuse or spousal abuse or child abuse issues.


These types of Draconian laws may appear to produce harsh results in a few isolated but widely publicized cases—but their existence does serve a vital, beneficial purpose for society in a more comprehensive sense.  

According to an article published in USA Today on Feb. 28, 2002, only some 26 states had enacted “three strike” habitual offender sentencing statutes by the end of the 1990s.

Every state should consider implementing them. They place the “burden” of complying with the law squarely on the shoulders of former law breakers, where it belongs.