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.
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.
He also claimed that the three-strikes era had produced fewer prisoners than state Department of Corrections officials had projected without the law.
But a study by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), a left-leaning research institution in San Francisco, found no correlation between California's general drop in crime and the imposition of longer, mandatory sentences for repeat felons.
Examining and comparing crime, arrests, and sentencing in California from 1993 to 1997, using data from the state attorney general's office and Department of Corrections, researchers drew three main conclusions:
*Comparing data from California's 12 largest counties, those that vigorously and strictly enforced three-strike provisions did not experience a decline in any crime category relative to more lenient counties.
*San Francisco, the county that most sparingly used three-strikes sentencing, witnessed a greater decline in violent crime and homicides than the six most heavily enforcing counties.
*Proponents of three-strikes had predicted the law would particularly cut crime in the over 30 age group, but the study found this group to be the only one to show increased crime and total felony arrests during the three-strikes period.
"Three strikes is a bust," says Dan Macallair, JPI associate director and coauthor of the study. "Even worse, all the rhetoric and political grandstanding behind three strikes has blinded us."
Let's take a closer look
Criminologists say there are strengths and weaknesses in both studies that need to be taken into account. Crime, for instance, has fallen in nearly every state - even those without three-strikes laws. Moreover, many states that have the laws on the books haven't enforced them - most using the statutes to put fewer than a half dozen people behind bars.
Experts also say that many other factors help explain the drop in crime - from better economic conditions (which has decreased the incentives for crime), to community policing, to stricter enforcement of other laws.
Also, statistics can't pinpoint the intangible impact that the three-strikes law provides in the plea-bargaining process of prospective third-time felons, says Robert Pugsley, professor of law at Southwestern School of Law in Los Angeles.
Under such pressure, many such defendants are trading information on other criminals in exchange for misdemeanor sentencing, which in one way cuts down on the number of felony prosecutions. "A reasonable person might simply conclude that three strikes has had some compelling effects, but it does not completely explain the complete drop in crime that has been experienced all across America," says Ms. McCoy.
Referring to the JPI study, she says drawing conclusions by comparing data from counties is "totally invalid," but that increases in crime among those over 30 is a compelling finding.
Others say a different law has helped drop California's crime statistics. In January, 1998, for instance, California voters instituted another tough crime law known as "10-20-life" in which criminals using guns during their crimes could have 10 years, 20 years, or a life sentence added to their terms. "We feel 10-20-life has had as much an effect on our dropping crime rate as three strikes," says Mr. Brown.
Debate is expected to intensify in coming months over a bill proposing to restrict third strike convictions to serious or violent felonies. Currently in California, a person can be sent away for life for a third felony that is less serious, such as burglary. In most other states, third strikes must include violence.