NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Deterrent Effect of Three-strike Laws

July 8, 2002

In 1994, California passed a "three-strikes" law that demands a harsh, minimum sentence for repeat felons. Studies done by opponents of the law claim that it does not significantly deter crime. However, according to a University of Chicago Law School study, these studies looked only at reduction in third-strike felonies and only at statewide data.

There are two problems with this approach, experts say. First, it does not consider total deterrence -- meaning deterrence of first and second strikes. Second, it overlooks the fact that three-strikes laws are not strictly enforced in every county. With these changes, they find:

  • During the first two years of the law's existence, approximately eight murders, 3,952 aggravated assaults, 10,672 robberies, and 384,488 burglaries were deterred -- all felonies that count towards a first or second strike.
  • However, larcenies -- which only count towards a third strike, not a first or second -- increased by 17,700.
  • The study also found that in counties where the three-strikes law was strictly enforced -- such as the more conservative, southern counties -- this pattern was more pronounced than in the more liberal, northern counties.

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


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