NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 15, 2008

In the tough-on-crime wave of the '90s, more than 20 states passed "three strikes" legislation, which subjects repeat offenders to increasingly harsher penalties, says Reason magazine.  Few enforced the law with as much zeal as California, which has slapped more than 40,000 residents with a strike or two.  But thanks to perverse incentives built into the legislation, the law may encourage some of those offenders to commit more violent crimes in the future, says Reason. 

Under California's three strikes legislation:

  • California criminals receive their first strike by committing an "aggravating offense," which covers a broad range of crimes including burglary and rape.
  • After the first strike, any felonies count as second and third strikes, and the third strike carries three times the normal sentence.

To determine how the law affects criminal behavior, Harvard economist Radha Iyengar compared criminals who committed the same crimes, but in a different order:

  • People who commit the aggravating offense first, triggering the law, behave differently than those who commit the aggravating offense after a series of other crimes.
  • The law had a significant deterrent effect, just as intended -- criminals were less likely to reoffend after they triggered the law.
  • Those who did reoffend were motivated to commit more violent crimes.
  • Since the penalty for the third strike is equally severe whether a criminal commits a nonviolent or a violent crime, Iyengar hypothesizes, offenders opt for the more violent crime.
  • Criminals with prior convictions were more likely to cross states boundaries before they struck again.

Source: Kerry Howley, "Striking Distance," Reason, July 2008.

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