Three Strikes Law

Three strikes law in American legislation turned into a very contraversary issue in American society and in legislature of separate states as it created an excellent soil for a number of political speculations on the hand with serious issues in criminology and court practices. Three strikes law is a category of statutes, which demand from courts compulsory and extended terms of incarceration, to those criminals who have convicted in serious crimes of 3 or more separate occasions. These statutes are also known among lawyers as habitual offender laws.

Rationality of these principles is the following: person who had committed a number of felonies (three or more) is recidivist, and extended term of incarceration will provide public safety and will protect society from such individuals. This term comes from baseball game, where batter has two strikes before he is out.

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In more general view three strikes law was a key point of the national crime prevention policy, which was promoting in 1980s and in 1990s:

“Like many states, California began toughening its sentencing policies and adding prison capacity in the early 1980s, just as crime rates began a modest five-year decline. In fact, California was the leader among states in this trend, tripling its prison population in the decade since 1982. Between 1984 and 1991, more than 1000 bills were passed by the California legislature to change felony and misdemeanor statutes. Virtually none of these bills decreased sentences. Many lengthened them. This trend culminated in the introduction of several bills in this past legislative session, all of which required imprisonment of repeat felons for 25 years to life” (from Greenwood, p. 5)

Even though that the total number of prisoners grew in the period between 1980 and 1994, surveys showed that the bigger number of people reported to be vulnerable to crime and violence, than in early records. The declining crime records in this period were very modest, but nevertheless it created an excellent soil for political speculations in the election periods for a number of state governors.

The supporters of the three strike law argue that this law will reduce the number of serious felonies committed by recidivists on 22-34% and will continue to work as a prevention method in future. About 30 percent of the crime committed by recidivists are serious crimes which include violent crimes (rape, murder, assaults), the rest of the felonies committed by recidivists are also serious: robberies and assaults. In California it was stated that three strike law will create crime reduction, which “will be bought at a cost of an extra $4.5 billion to $6.5 billion per year in current dollars, compared to what would have been spent had the previous law remained in effect. The intent of the three-strikes law is, of course, to lock up repeat offenders longer, and that requires the construction and operation of more prisons. Some police and court costs may be saved in not having to deal so often with such offenders once they are locked up, but greater prison costs overwhelm such savings.” (from Greenwood, p. 11-15)

Those who criticize three strike law mention that its practices are too strict for less violent crimes and that their prolonged incarceration will not have positive effects in addition it require to much funds spent of their imprisonment. The opponents for the three strike law also mention that quite often the third strike is a minor felony such as a car theft, which can not be viewed as serious as other crimes, which were mentioned.

In addition opponents of the three strike law require a full research to be made in order to model the outcomes of using this statutes in real life practice. First of all the financial outcomes of this law are not very clear as they have to be, as skepticists want first to know what will be the results if the three strike law will be applied only to serious felonies rather than to minor felonies. In addition, it’s often argued that three strikes law can be simply substituted by full sentence in most of felony cases.

The supporters of the three strike law say the following about this concept:

  • It will protect society from chronic criminals, who are dangerous for public and who don’t want to correct
  • It will function as preventive practice for existing offenders
  • It will save funds which are needed to proceed chronic criminals throught the juridical system
  • It is the “right thing to do.” Aside from the savings and other effects, justice demands that those who repeatedly cause injury and loss to others have their freedom revoked.

The opponents for the three strike law have the following arguments:

  • Three strike law will have little to do with crime prevention as the crime rate in recent years is slowing
  • Life sentences for three time offenders will require spending more money in order to support their imprisonment
  • The same amount of money applied to measures other than three strikes would reduce crime by a greater amount.
  • The third-strike penalty is an unduly harsh one for criminals convicted of certain felonies such as drug possession.

On the hand with speculations of politicians who want to increase their rating by promoting three strike law preventive crime practices and debates of lawyers over this contraversary issue, there is a lot unsolved and unclear for common tax payers, who will have to pay for the realization of this law on practice and who will in many respects feel on themselves whether it functions or not: “Two years of experience with Three Strikes in California has not quieted debate about the efficacy of the law. Proponents claim victory based on lower crime rates since its passage(7) while opponents point to widely reported cases, involving minor third strikes, leading to grossly disproportionate prison terms” (Vitiello, 1997)

And it became obvious, there is very small evidence and small analysis of the positive effects probability in case three strike law will be adopted: “Thus, although some of the debate is cast in moral terms, most of the disagreements are over questions that lend themselves to quantitative analysis. Little such analysis has appeared. To the average citizen, of course, increased punishment for serious crimes has intuitive appeal. But, as decisions approach in California and other states, voters may want to know just how much crime reduction they are getting for their money. Could they do as well for less money? And just what is the total cost of the law? Citizens are not getting much information on that from the law itself, the media, or their elected representatives. The law bears no explicit price tag; the media are better at depicting crime’s human tragedy than at drawing up balance sheets; and politicians have at last found a cause that will offend no powerful interest group.” (Greenwood, p. 12-15)

The table below shows crime statistics for the state of California, which shows a large difference between high-rate offenders and low-rate offenders. The following table refers to the crime rates of the streets of Californian big cities and shows that average high-rate offender commits two serious violent crimes per year and seven serious crimes, while typical low-rate offender commits one serious crime in the period of 2,5 years. This data shows how the application of three strike law and repeat-offender penalties for such type of criminals can reduce the crime rate and violence in one particular state. The example of California in respects is typical for other states where the crime statistics doesn’t differ much.

“Offense rates, however, are not the same as crime rates. If two persons collaborate in a robbery, each one has committed an offense, but there is only one crime. The bottom two panels of the table show the data that permitted our”

Offenses and Crimes per Offender per Year: Index Felonies, California
Type of Felony
Type of Offender Violent Serious Only Other Index Total Index
Offenses per Offender per Year
Low-rate 0.12 0.29 0.71 1.11
High-rate 2.03 5.03 12.43 19.49
Offenders per Crime
Low-rate 1.54 1.79 1.92 1.84
High-rate 1.54 1.79 1.92 1.84
Crimes per Offender per Year
Low-rate 0.08 0.16 0.37 0.60
High-rate 1.32 2.81 6.47 10.60

Making a conclusion I would like to say that three strikes law has a lot of positive outcomes, in case it will be introduced. The crime rate today, even that it’s decreasing still is a matter of concern of a number of Americans. In addition as recent reports show a bigger number of Americans is now vulnerable to crime, which did not take place in earlier decades. Such tendencies have a lot of explanations, as criminals who are released from prison, especially who are released early can not find any decent job and continue their previous life of being outlaw. Statistics given in the table above shows that recidivists, especially those who commit serious crimes are very hard to reform and that mostly them contribute to high crime rate in our society. That’s why three strike law to my point of view should have a selective character and very extended imprisonment terms should be applied to serious crime offenders, rather than to minor crime offenders.


1. Greenwood, Peter W. Three Strikes and You’Re Out: Estimated Benefits and Costs of California’s New Mandatory-Sentencing Law, Rand 1994
2. Vitiello, Michael Three strikes: can we return to rationality Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 87, 1997

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