Three Strikes Law Justified or Draconian

When we passed the “Three-Strikes” initiative in California during 1994, overall crime in the state went down by about 26% (over 800,000 fewer crimes). Also, paroled felons from other states moved out at the rate of over 1200 the first year. However, a few, principally trial lawyers and the usual group of liberal suspects, spoke out against the law, claiming that the third violation putting the perp away for life could be a minor, nonviolent, albeit felonious, crime of say, burglary.

Those who view our criminal justice system as a sort of failed rehabilitation agency and thus the cause of repeat criminals would naturally view putting repeat felons away for life as unjust, especially when the final crime would not normally merit a life sentence. Those (myself included) who regard locking away criminals as the greatest deterrence to recidivism – i.e., criminals inside can only victimize each other, not us – embrace the three-strikes provisions for its original intent: deterrence and punishment.

The foregoing places me at odds with those who blame society for the actions of a criminal and who believe that the prison experience should somehow be directed at reforming criminals. On the contrary, the operative word in “penal system” is “penal.” There is a penalty for committing crimes, and that is to be segregated from the rest of society, to reflect on the bad habits and actions that resulted in having a guy named Bruno as your roommate, and to serve as an incentive to not repeat such behavior.

As regards repeat offenders, here’s what one California Judge, James A. Ardaiz, Administrative Presiding Justice of the Fifth District Court of Appeal says:

“The second factor in punishment is rehabilitation. This factor assumes a person has broken the law and seeks to deter future criminal behavior by altering their behavior. Rehabilitation seeks to teach offenders that certain conduct is unacceptable and to encourage them to avoid such conduct in the future. While it was accepted that rehabilitation was a primary concern with new or low level offenders, it was not demonstrably effective on repeat offenders. As repeat offenders made clear through continued criminal acts, probation and other alternatives aimed at rehabilitation were simply not effective.”

In California, those who commit two violent or serious crimes become immediate candidates for life imprisonment on commission of the next felony. Prosecutors have typically not pressed for life imprisonment if the third crime is not serious, and recent studies (by the Rand Corporation, for example) point to an estimated decrease in serious felonies of between 22 and 34 percent ten years after California’s adoption of a modified three-strikes statute.

Again, here’s what Judge Ardaiz has to say on the subject:

“People who have a history of criminal behavior have already demonstrated that the length of incarceration itself, or other adverse consequences, had not and did not alter their behavior. Simply put, lengthening the sentences in individual crimes was not a deterrent because it was not a factor in the thinking of those who had a pattern of breaking the law and it was of little consequence to those who were law abiding in controlling their conduct.”

So, here’s the bottom line: California’s three strikes law is draconian, expensive, and the state’s prisons are overcrowded as felons are swept off the street. The resulting decrease in crime and deterrence is justified.

References cited:
FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin,The, April, 1999 by John R. Schafer
Three Strikes and you’re out – Stop Repeat Offenders