NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

California's Three Strikes Law Works

October 7, 2002

In response to rising crime rates, California instituted strike-out laws. Under these laws, the second or third felony offense is met with more severe punishment than a typical sentence. Opponents claim that these strike-out laws are expensive and do not deter crime. However, a new study argues that they are effective.

California legislation defines the two-strikes zone as any felony if the offender has one prior felony conviction from a list of strikeable offenses and the three-strikes zone as any felony if the offender has two prior felony convictions from the list. The study concludes that previous examinations did not take the complete deterrence effect into account and underestimated its effect. The study states that strike-out laws not only deter the final "strike-out," but also the first and second "strikes".

Using data from the FBI Uniform Crime Reports and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the study estimates that:

  • During the first 2 years after the legislation's enactment, approximately 8 murders, 3,982 aggravated assaults, 10,672 robberies, and 384,488 burglaries were deterred in California by the two- three-strikes legislation.
  • However, the laws also resulted in 17,700 more larcenies as criminals substituted strikeable offenses with nonstrikeable offenses.
  • The deterrence of these crimes saved victims approximately $889 million.

The study concluded some criminals will substitute other crimes not on the list of strikeable offenses. To prevent this, it is suggested that the list be expanded to include the most common substitutes for strikeable offenses.

Source: Joanna M. Shepherd, "Fear of the First Strike: The Full Deterrent Effect of California's Two- and Three-Strikes Legislation," The Journal of Legal Studies, January 2002.


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