Recidivism is a tendency to relapse into a former pattern of behavior or a tendency to return to criminal behavior. Many studies have been conducted about criminals who begin with petty crimes (misdemeanors) that repeat the same crimes or graduate to serious crimes (felonies). The fear of repeat offenders and the increase of recidivism ignited the federal and state governments to seek harsher ways to protect citizens’ safety. Mike Reynolds a photographer whose daughter, Kimber, was murdered in 1992 during a purse-snatching incident introduced the Three Strikes Law in 1993. State legislators did consider and rejected this law because they believed the measures were harsh and costly. However, the Three Strikes Law received national attention from a second incident, the 1993 kidnapping of Polly Klaas from her Petaluma home. Polly was kidnapped and murdered by Richard Allen Davis who was on parole during this time. Because of this second incident, in January 1994 during President Clinton’s State of the Union Address, he requested for the enactment of a federal Three Strikes Law. In March 1994, California passed the Three Strikes bill. “Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy criticized the politics surrounding the enactment of the Three Strikes Law of California’s famous recidivist sentencing scheme as ‘sick’” (Romano, 2010). Although the Three Strikes Law centers on California, Washington was the first state to adopt the law while California followed with a broader version.
According to Dickey and Hollenhorst (1999), “23 states and the federal government adopted some form of “three strikes and you’re out” law intending to target repeat violent offenders (p.1). The law varies among states, but the intent is to “reduce judicial discretion by mandating severe prison sentences for third (and in some instances first and second) felony convictions” (Dickey and Hollenhorst, 1999). To formulate the law, it was decided that the most valuable approach to reduce violent crimes was through a mandated policy decision requiring identification through past behavior of those who demonstrated clear conduct to participate in violent criminal and whose conduct was not discouraged by the usual concepts of punishment. Reed (2004) stated, “The overall purpose of punishment within the criminal justice system is to prevent the commission of crimes to deter recidivism. For this objective to be successful, punishment must be effective in addressing the problems and solutions for the entire system, not just in individual cases” (p. 502). In reducing crimes, various methods and theories are taken into account. Some of these methods are additional police, additional courts, mandatory sentencing, and increased prosecutorial resources (Reed, 2004). Because the Three Strikes Law varies from state to state, this leads to the many problems it causes in the criminal justice system.
The purpose of the Three Strikes Law is to reduce serious or violent crime rates and provide a means to practice racial disparity in sentencing. The law is also intended to give longer sentences to offenders who are convicted three times. Usually, the first and second convictions result in punishment, but of a more routine appeal. Justice James A. Ardaiz, the Fifth Appellate District of California explained, “Three Strikes was intended to go beyond simply making sentences tougher. It was intended to be a focused effort to create a sentencing policy that would use the judicial system to reduce serious and violent crime” (Goodno, 2007).
According to Reed (2004), deterrence, incapacitation, retribution, and rehabilitation are the four theories of punishment in the criminal justice system (p. 502). Each state legislature is responsible for establishing policies and making decisions of which theory supports the states sentencing schematic. Deterrence is used to dissuade other potential offenders. The Three Strikes Law looks for ways to use mandatory or required increased sentences to dissuade repeat offenders (Reed, 2004, p. 503). In a survey, “a majority of juvenile offenders said that if they knew that they would receive 25 years to life in prison, they would not commit a serious or violent felony” (Goodno, 2007). Dickey and Hollenhorst (1999) found that “many experts agreed that the threat of punishment had little impact on criminal behavior because most criminals correctly believed they will not be caught, have little knowledge of what sentencing laws apply to them, or they commit crimes while intoxicated, angry, or high and thus are not rationally analyzing the consequences of their behavior (p. 9).
Incapacitation prevents future offenses by either imprisoning or executing the offender. The primary purpose is “to protect the public by incarcerating offenders and keeping time off the streets” (Reed, 2004). Beres and Griffith (1998) conducted an analysis that showed the Three Strikes Law could significantly reduce the crime rate by incapacitating criminals who commit most of the serious crimes. Since many of these criminals are already in prison for most of their lives, only an “uncertain reduction in crime is achieved by incarcerating them for longer terms” (p. 138). Kovandzic, Sloan, and Vieraitis (2004), states, “The Three Strikes Law was intended to both deter and incapacitate recidivists, and the legislation mandates significant sentence enhancements for offenders with prior convictions, including life sentences without parole for at least 25 years on conviction of a third violent felony or for some categories of offenders simply without parole” (p. 208). An observation suggests that because of incapacitation “the number of sentenced third-strikers declined yearly from 1996 through 2003, and a similar decline occurred with second-strikers” (Goodno, 2007).
Retribution centers on the “punishing the offender rather than preventing crime from occurring. The Three Strikes Law serves the retribution because a repeat offender is more blameworthy due to repeated commission of crime and should serve harsher punishments” (p. 503). Rehabilitation reforms the offender through encouragement of behavior that is acceptable or imitates society. This is the treatment and social rehabilitation of the offender rather than punishment. Generally, repeat offenders are not rehabilitated because of their continued criminal behavior.
As previously stated, Washington was the first Three Strikes Law state “when it passed an initiative mandating life terms of imprisonment without possibility for parole for individuals convicted a third time for specified violent offenses” (Kovandzic, et al., 2004). California then followed in 1994, and by 1996, 23 other states and the federal government enacted similar laws. However, California and Georgia are the only two states that have applied the legislation with any consistency. “As of mid-year 1998, Georgia sentenced almost 2,000 offenders under one and two strike provisions, and California more than 40,000 under two and three strike provisions” (Kovandzic, et al., 2004). There was a political push for this law because in the public’s view, they believed that many offenders were receiving shorter sentences than they previously had and prisons were being used as revolving doors. However, offenders were serving longer terms and incarceration rates had increased.
According to Dickey and Hollenhorst (1999), “new laws that were passed under the three strikes rubric were intended to target violent career criminals, but they were written with significant variations in sentencing and parole eligibility, the number of strikes required to invoke a mandatory sentence, the nature of crimes that qualify as a strike, the time elapsed between strikes, the type of felony that triggers the sentencing enhancement, and the degree of discretion permitted in invoking and applying the law” (p. 3). The law has been in effect for more than ten years and three reasons why it has been effective is because “1) the Three Strikes Law appears to be meeting its theoretical goals; 2) some of the initial concerns of the impact of the law have not occurred; and 3) the interpretation of the law has provided for built-in safeguards to ensure that the intent of the law is carried out” (Goodno, 2007).
Although the popularity of the laws is phenomenally great, the studies that have been conducted were focused on California and nationally. Also, some of the studies focused on laws that impacted certain crimes such as murder, while others focused on the laws that impacted a larger set of offenses, such as serious property crime. The Three Strikes Law “has had substantial impact with serious economic implications in California and Georgia, it has had limited impact in most states and the federal system” (Dickey and Hollenhorst, 1999). However, the law is still popular with the politicians. Many states and the federal government tailored the Three Strikes law, “which limited their use and their disruptive impact minimized” (p. 2). It is very challenging to evaluate the effect of a law because the criminal justice system is very complex and it is also difficult to isolate the impact of one law from other factors that may affect it. The federal Three Strikes Law impact “has been limited because most violent felonies are resolved in state courts and less than two percent in federal courts” (p.8).
Racial disparity can impact the Three Strikes Law. In California, African Americans are disproportionately sentenced for third strike convictions. In a 1997 report found by Dickey and Hollenhorst (2004), “7 percent of the state’s population is made up of African Americans but account for 20 percent of felony arrests, 31 percent of state prisoners, and 43 percent of those imprisoned for a third strike” (p. 10). The 1998 California DOC data displayed “African Americas make up 36.8 percent of offenders convicted on a second strike and 44 percent of those convicted on a third strike” (p. 10).
Generally, the Three Strikes Law is effective. It has met the goals of deterrence and incapacitation of career criminals without putting a strain on state budgets and overcrowding prisons. The law has progressed to ensure that it targets only career criminals. Each state has its own methods of exercising preferences to ensure the law is fairly applied.
The Three Strikes Law focuses on individuals and determines whether they receive longer sentencing because of their past criminal conduct. Justice O’Connor explained, “Recidivism is a serious public safety concern in California and throughout the nation” (Goodno, 2007). The law was enacted to handle this concern, and currently, the law is showing that it is doing its job.
Romano, Michael. "Divining the Spirit of California's Three Strikes Law." Law.stanford.edu., 10 June 2010. Web. 26 June 2013. Dickey, W. J. & Hollenhorst, P. (1999). Three-strikes laws: Five years later. Corrections Management Quarterly, 3(3), 1-18. Goodno, Naomi H. "Career Criminals Targeted: The Verdict Is In, California's Three Strikes Law Proves Effective." Golden Gate University Law Review 37.2 (2007) Beres, Linda S., and Thomas D. Griffith. "Did Three Strikes Cause the Recent Drop in California Crime: An Analysis of the California Attorney General's Report." Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review 7th ser. 32.1 (1998): n. pag. Digital Commons. Kovandzic, Tomaslav V., John J. Sloan, III, and Lynne M. Vieraitis. ""Striking Out" as Crime Reduction Policy: The Impact of "three Strikes" Laws on Crime Rates in U.S. Cities." Justice Quarterly 21.2 (2006)