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The impact of 'three strikes' laws

Backers laud five-year-old mandatory sentencing law for curbing crime,but critics see clogged courts and prisons.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 8, 1999


It was hailed by advocates as the most creative and powerful "get-tough-on-crime" tool in modern history - put third-time felons in prison for good. In the wake of soaring national crime statistics and a series of highly publicized murders, California signed the nation's toughest "three strikes, you're out law" in March 1994. Twenty-one states followed suit.

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Now, five years later in a dramatically different economic climate, crime statistics have plummeted. Proponents say "three strikes" is the reason. Opponents cite a lower jobless rate and myriad other factors.

With California and other state prison populations soaring and court dockets jammed, critics say it's time to limit the laws, while key politicians and prosecutors continue to hail their impact in quelling crime.

"For district attorneys, three-strikes has been the most profound change ever in the criminal-justice laws of California," says Lawrence Brown, executive director of the California District Attorneys Association. "We are now able to warehouse the truly worst offenders for a very long time."

But the state is running out of prison beds and the soaring numbers of high-risk inmates, in some cases, is leading to the early release of less-serious criminals. At the same time, critics argue that three-strikes cases are clogging criminal court calendars to the point where they are now forcing delays in civil proceedings.

As both sides square off over new legislation that would limit the five-year-old law's scope, two new studies in the state where it began draw conflicting conclusions. Politicians here are sifting through the evidence for policy implications, while other states' legislators try to learn from the California example.

"Because California is the biggest state and has the harshest three-strikes laws in the nation, people are looking hard at what they find," says Candace McCoy, a professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "At this critical juncture, both sides are trying to influence the public discourse in ways that suit their own interpretation."

The author of California's three-strikes law - Secretary of State Bill Jones, a former assemblyman from Fresno - released a recent report showing a 38 percent decline in violent crime in the five years the law has been in effect.

More than 1 million crimes have been prevented and $21.7 billion in related costs have been saved, he says. Statistics show 5,695 fewer murders, 6,923 fewer rapes, 172,045 fewer robberies, 111,223 fewer aggravated assaults, and 454,654 fewer burglaries.

"I don't see any time frame in the history of California where you've seen this dramatic a drop," Mr. Jones says. "The fact that it coincides specifically with the passage of three strikes is not accidental. No other factor, no other law, no other condition in the history of California has had the dramatic impact in reducing crime in this state, period."

Anatomy of a study

Jones arrived at the numbers by applying the 1993 crime rate to population increases over the ensuing years and then subtracting the actual number of crimes from those projections.

By using monetary figures from awards in civil cases, insurance outlays, and other data in a 1996 National Institute of Justice Report, Jones attached what he calls "tangible" and "societal" costs to each crime - ranging from $3,700 for a stolen car to $2.9 million for a murder - to come up with the cost savings of $21.7 billion.