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Three Strikes Revisited: An Early Assessment of Implementation and Effects

NCJ Number
Date Published
August 1998
100 pages
Publication Series
This document examines the 4 year experience with the three strikes law in California.
The goals of the study were to ask whether crime and incarceration rates in California and other three strikes States had changed faster than in other States, why California’s prison population had not increased more rapidly, how the law had affected the criminal justice system. The three strikes law invokes an extended sentence (often life in prison) following three instances of conviction of sufficiently severe crimes. Twenty-five States, as well as the Federal Government, have adopted some version of the “three-strikes-and-you-are-out” law. The laws vary widely across States in terms of the definition of “strike,” the conditions under which the sanctions of the law may be triggered, and the severity of the sanctions. In most States, the laws are narrow, targeting a specific group of particularly dangerous repeat offenders. The California law is quite broad and differs from most others in two ways: sentence enhancements apply when the defendant has only one prior conviction for a serious crime, and the current felony offense that triggers the enhancements need not be serious. Findings showed that States with three strikes laws did not appear to have experienced faster declines in crime or a greater increase in incarceration rates than States without such laws. In California, the prison population had increased but no faster than before the law was implemented. Increases in the incarceration rate per conviction (possibly the result of the three strikes law) and in the number of arrests per crime were offset by a decrease in the crime rate. In California, the law has not resulted in dramatic workload increases for all prosecutors and courts. Effects on the number of jury trials and on case backlogs have varied from county to county. Such variations may reflect differences in how counties have implemented the law. In some counties, strikes are being dismissed in a quarter to a half of all strike eligible cases. References, appendices

Date Published: August 1, 1998