Widgets Magazine


The Pitfalls of California’s Three Strikes Law

Recidivism is a serious issue in our criminal justice system and it deserves its due attention. Fifty-three percent of males released from jail are re-incarcerated, which is especially worrying in a nation that has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Noticing this trend, Californians instituted the three-strike system in 1994 as Proposition 184, which mandates that the third of three felonies be punished extremely harshly — usually with a life sentence.

Hard data on the effects of the three-strike system is difficult to come by, especially because it is difficult for sociologists to confidently parse trends and distinguish between correlation and causation when it comes to something as complex as criminal decisions. Unfortunately, there is no hard data suggesting — or, to be fair, refuting — a direct causal link between the diminishing number of violent crimes and felonies in California and the Three Strikes Law.

The law nonetheless costs the state approximately half a billion dollars a year. It targets many who have committed theft-related felonies and non-violent crimes. Moreover, African Americans are disproportionately represented amongst those who are charged for second and third strikes.

There are countless articles on absurd applications of the law. The New York Times and the Huffington Post have characterized it as being “draconian”. The Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project has claimed that 40% of those charged with the third strike are mentally ill. Although a 5-4 Supreme Court decision decided that the law was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment — the protection against cruel and unusual punishment — it is clear that this approach has its problems.

The Three Strikes Law is the perfect illustration of the politics of retribution. The implicit moral logic of this measure is that this kind of rational punitive structure causes intelligent criminals to avoid recidivism. As a state, when we accept narratives that satisfy our collectively limited understanding of a phenomena as complex as recidivism, we end up with a highly expensive and arguably draconian program such as this.

Laws, particularly those that ultimately have the power to confiscate the basic freedoms of our citizens, must be subject to rigorous review after they are put in place. It is also important that they are based in legitimate jurisprudence to prevent such a situation as this one.

Take this very basic statistical set: Criminals who commit a property crime are 13.9% more likely to relapse, where as those who commit violent crimes are 31.9% less likely to do so. Moreover, criminals are 1.2% less likely to recommit a crime for every year they spend in prison. On average those criminals who were convicted for a repeat offense at least once are 58.1% more likely to recommit a crime. Your likelihood of going back to jail drops 2.9% for every year of education you have and younger offenders are much more likely to reoffend than older ones.

These statistics suggest that the most likely third-strike offenders have committed property crimes like petty theft, have spent a relatively small amount of time in jail and are young and uneducated. It seems that the most disadvantaged segment of the population is incurring this extra wrath of the Three Strikes Law.

This reality is far from the popular characterization of the law as a deterrent to the kind of violent crimes that were prevalent leading up to the adoption of that law. If the government insists on spending such a large portion of its budget on combating recidivism, it must ask itself who is bearing the brunt of this intense punishment and why.

Combating recidivism is a complex issue, and I don’t have concrete policy solutions that I believe in. I do think that increasing education standards and, by attracting businesses to California, helping those who would otherwise steal find work would be a good first step to reducing the overall rate of recidivism in the state. And ultimately, the policies we do approve should be based on research instead of moral platitudes.

Instead, we find ourselves in a situation where political expediency has taken precedence over logic and statistics, and where those who are in jail today are the most disenchanted members of our society. It is overwhelmingly clear that the Three Strikes Law is neither a proper tool to deter recidivism nor an intelligent way to distribute the state’s budget. Since the Californian population clearly intends to address this problem, lawmakers should look to the causes of the problem rather than its effects.


Contact Anthony Ghosn at anghosn@stanford.edu.