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Unintended Consequences of Politically Popular Sentencing Policy: The Homicide Promoting Effects of "Three Strikes" in U.S. Cities (1980-1999)

NCJ Number
Criminology & Public Policy Volume: 1 Issue: 3 Dated: 2002 Pages: 399-424
Tomislav V. Kovandzic; John J. Sloan III; Lynne M. Vieraitis
Date Published
26 pages
This study examined the possible homicide promoting effects of Three Strikes laws.
The Three Strikes and You’re Out Laws mandate longer prison terms for offenders with prior convictions that are subsequently convicted of serious crimes like murder, rape, aggravated robbery, aggravated assault, and kidnapping. The rationale for the laws is that if criminals calculate the potential benefits and costs of their actions, they would be less likely to commit crime when costs outweigh the rewards. The problem is that these laws may result in significant unintended negative consequences. Criminals facing lengthy prison terms upon conviction for a third strike may take steps to try and reduce the chances of being caught, prosecuted, and convicted by changing their modus operandi, such as killing victims, witnesses, or police officers to reduce the chance of apprehension. To test this hypothesis, three-strikes laws in 24 States were evaluated using State-level panel data for the period 1970 to 1998. Data from 188 large cities were analyzed. A multiple time series research design was used. The results provide exceptionally strong support for the claim that homicide rates have grown faster (or declined at a slower rate) in three-strikes cities compared with cities without the laws. Cities in States with three-strikes laws experienced short-term increases in homicide rates of 13 percent to 14 percent and long-term increases of 16 percent to 24 percent compared with cities in States without the laws. The results emphasize the fact that possible unintended negative consequences of policy directives are rarely considered. This points to a need for policy makers to consider both intended and unintended consequences of policy directives before the directives are codified. 2 tables, 16 footnotes, 60 references


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