Three Strikes Laws From the Term Paper

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Therefore, by increasing the costs of imprisonment by the three strikes law, it is intended that there will be less crime. Marwell and Moody express several difficulties with the laws in the 24 states: Criminals are not always aware of the laws, at least not initially; repeat criminals can be expected to serve substantial prison terms even in the absence of the laws; almost all of the states already had habitual criminal statutes where criminals with prior convictions could be given lengthy sentences under the judge's discretion; the deterrent effect on homicides is limited in any case because the law most likely does not increase sanctions for homicides. However, the law may reduce homicides by deterring robberies and other felonies where homicides may take place; some criminals may limit their expected costs by taking evasive action, such as moving to another jurisdiction or to other areas of crime where the expected costs are lower or take additional measures to reduce chance of apprehension and conviction such as bribing police. Lastly, criminals who normally would commit a nonlethal felony may do so in order not to be identified (pp. 91-92)

The authors state that even if this change in modus operandi occurs in very rare instances -- 1% of the time -- the impact can be great. For example, if the law can influence one homicide per thousand violent crimes, this can increase total homicides by about 17% in three-strikes states (pg. 93).

On the other hand, the three strikes law could reduce crime in general and thus homicides. Deterrence would likely cause an immediate reduction and incapacitation would have a delayed impact, because nearly all three-strikes defendants would receive prison terms no matter what. Thus, the authors believe, the net effect of the three-strikes law and the timing of that effect could be an essential factor.

In Zimring, Hawkins and Kamins book Punishment and Democracy: Three Strikes and You're Out in California (2002), the authors suggest that the three strikes law probably provides a deterrent effect (pg. 105), but it is not actually due to the decline in the crime rate between 1993 and 1999 (pp. 91-100). The authors review several key concerns about the law, such as problems during its drafting (pp. 169-170), long-term impact on the prison impact (pp. 133-138) and the questionable effect that the initiative process has on the policy relating to terms of imprisonment (pp. 192-203). As a result, the book recommends to repeal or modify the law's provisions.

More importantly, Punishment and Democracy does not indicate that any empirical data based on the law's effects will "influence the public debate about three strikes laws (pp. 217-32) or influence policymakers. They thus stress that wholesale reform of the three strikes law is most unlikely. Small changes may be made, only because of the major costs incurred by the public

For this present CAP report and study, it is important to look at the reasons why these authors believe that individuals especially in California where the law appears to be the most severe and inconsistent still support it. First, proponents point to drops in the crime rate because it identifies those whose past behavior has demonstrated a clear disposition to engage in serious criminal acts and whose behavior has not been deterred in the past through conventional punishment. In a study by the Attorney General's Department in 1998, "since the passage of 'Three Strikes,"...the violent crime rate in California has dropped 26.9% with a 30.8% drop in the six major crime categories.'" (pg. 3). However, the statistics that they use as a basis for crime decrease are too recent. An absence of offenders has to be looked at in a long-term study. Other arguments for supporting the law quote anecdotes with inmates and past offenders that relates the many conversations within the penal institutions about the three strikes law. Other three-strikes proponents cite FBI data that indicates a significant drop in California's crime rate.

The authors conclude that the law has not yet produced promised benefits, thus questioning the costs to the judicial and prison system. Also, the law does not create new felony prosecutions; it only increases the punishment for targeted groups. As a result, one might expect a "disgruntled public would demand revision of the law, but no such backlash has occurred."

The authors believe that the support for three strikes has remained strong because the full story of its implementation has not been fully implemented. In fact, elections emphasize the fact that the law has been effective and certain candidates take credit for decline in crime. However, the authors agree that reform would not be likely even if all the information was available. "Three Strikes is supported by a powerful legend about crime in California; part of that legend is the perception that Three Strikes was a watershed change in penal policy from soft to hard on crime and that the law led to the sharp decline in crime rates (p. 221). Questioning the deterrent effect of the Three Strikes would not be enough to erode confidence in the law, because the law "feels right) (pg. 221-22). The normal causal relationship is reversed: The public believes that severe sanctions are appropriate, so the law must be working well (p. 221). Voters are thus swayed by political rhetoric that treats issues of punishment as a "zero-sum competition between crime victims and criminal offenders (p. 223). Politicians emphasize that voters are choosing between victims and offenders and that what is bad for offenders is necessarily good for victims.

One thing everyone can agree to -- proponents and opponents -- is that the law has significantly increased the number of offenders in prison.

When passing a law such as this, especially without analyzing the ramifications down the road, many different individuals and groups of individuals can be impacted beyond those immediately acknowledged. For example, in California the effect of the Three Strikes Law on the African-American community "has been devastating because of the inclusion of any felony as a possible third strike (Schmitt, 1991, A1). A study conducted by the San Jose Mercury News analyzed about 700,000 California criminal cases between 1981 and 1990 and found that whites were more successful at essentially every stage of pre-trial plea bargaining. For instance, the study demonstrated that "of 71,668 adults who had no prior record and were charged with a felony, one-third of whites had their charges reduced to a misdemeanor or less, whole only a quarter of African-Americans and Hispanics received such reductions.

Drug enforcement exemplifies this disparity. Drug usage is not significantly greater in the black community than in the white, but drug enforcement is. However, African-Americans have been incarcerated under Three Strikes at 13.3 times the rate as whites.

According to Shaw, Shapiro, Lock and Jacobs (1998), although the violent crime rate and Americans' fear of crime have remained essentially stable since the early 1970s, recent years have seen rising public support for punishment of criminals. Responses to crime, such as the "three-strikes" laws for repeat felons in California are increasingly common (Warr 1993). For example, support for capital punishment for convicted murderers has grown since the late 1960s. Similarly, what started out as "Megan's Law" in New Jersey in 1996 has now been copied by 34 other states under the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Such state initiatives and federal legislation represent only the most recent installments in the connection between the American public and criminal statutes.

The "get tough" approach continues to enjoy the backing of majority support for fiscal resources directed to law enforcement (Shaw, et. al, 1998, p. 406), although the public may distinguish between criminal behavior and the non-crime-related aspects of drug addiction. Recently, as well, Americans as a whole have been more supportive of limited gun control measures (Young et. al. 1996) and have increased their interest in police performance. The percentage of Americans reporting either a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in community police has been a stable and even growing majority, reaching 60% in 1997 (study by Shaw et. al). This increase came about despite certain nationally publicized cases, including the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, the O.J. Simpson trial and revelations of racism by Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Furman, police clubbing of illegal Mexican immigrants at the end of a car chase and the brutal sodomizing by police of a Haitian immigrant in the bathroom of a New York City precinct. As Tuch and Weitzer (1997) demonstrate, these visible incidents led to cross-racial differences in attitudes toward police, but solid majorities, both in LA and across the nation remained generally approving of criminal justice authorities.

The acceptance of such increased law enforcement may be for a different reason than expected. The answer may actually lie in ignorance of criminal procedures under the United States Constitution. Studies have shown that many Americans are confused about criminal…[continue]

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