Three Strikes Works?


The commentary by Edward Erler and Brian Janiskee (“Three-Strikes Law Hits Its Target,” Los Angeles Times, September 28, 2004) seems to lend credibility to often emotionally-filled charges of opponents to Proposition 66 (the California initiative to scale back the “three-strikes” law), who, as usual, cite worst-case scenarios to support their view, claiming that all sorts of “wild killers” will be let lose on innocent citizens.  They correctly note that the crime rate declined throughout the past decade and also note that many attribute the decline to an improved economy, gang truces and the decreasing number of young men in the population.  (As for the number of young men, this argument is old but without factual foundation, as noted by criminologist Mike Males in his book Framing Youth.)

However, what the research clearly shows is that during the last decade crime dropped all over the country, including states with no three-strikes laws on the books. Some states without such a law had even larger decreases. But recently the crime rate has started to show signs of rising.  More to the point, a check of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report shows that the overall crime rate today is roughly what it was in the early 1970s (and this is despite of a 500% increase in incarceration rates and about a 1500% increase in criminal justice expenditures).

Erler and Janiskee tell us that “career criminals” are responsible for the bulk of serious crimes and that it was these offenders three strikes targeted, based upon the belief that if we “incapacitate” these folks we’ll all be safer. This “common sense” belief is debatable, as even the people at Rand Corporation who originally came up with the idea (e.g., Peter Greenwood) have said that this is not entirely true and that “incapacitation” is not as simple a solution as they once believed.

Erler and Janiskee go on to note three-strikes was a reaction to the “alarming increase” in crime during the 1970s and 1980s, ignoring the obvious fact that it was during the 1980s that the Reagan administration began a massive cut-back in social services, started giving away tax dollars to the super rich (“tax cuts”), ran up the largest deficit in US history (until now) and launched the infamous “war on drugs.”  All of these factors and more contributed to the increase in crime.

The “get tough” movement had already started with the Nixon administration, so what took place throughout the next two decades was merely an extension of this.  The “final straw” were the deaths of Polly Klaas and Kimber Reynolds.  It is no accident that the public got angry about these horrendous crimes, since the victims were white and middle class.  Of course there were many others, less well-known, in communities that have little voice in political life, but these deaths apparently don’t count for much. Erler and Janiskee draw the reader into the false conclusion that if three-strikes was on the books, both of these victims would be alive today. Well, if existing sentencing laws would have been used, both would have been alive today.  How do you think people like Charles Manson remain in prison today? 

Erler and Janiskee then take aim at opponents who complain about the fact that the third strike is all too often a minor offense, but then remind us that the two previous “strikes” were violent offenses (even this is not always the case). Therefore it logically follows that it is ok to send someone to prison for the rest of his life for stealing a couple slices of pizza or a couple of videos?  They note that there is some discretion on the part of prosecutors and judges as far as the third strike is concerned.  Is this why this law seems to target mostly blacks?  Are they the ones who commit the most crime?  If so, why is that?  If not, why are they targeted?

Finally, they argue that California “has the toughest three-strikes law in the nation, and the voters meant it to be tough. It originated as an anti-crime measure that expressed zero tolerance for all crime, not just violent crime.”  Now their true conservative, reactionary colors are showing.  Let’s get tough on all crime and all criminals (except, of course, highly recidivist corporate and white collar offenders who cost citizens around $1 trillion each year and are responsible for at least 100,000 deaths, and who rarely go to prison.).  We need “zero tolerance” so that any minor offense can earn a stay in prison or jail!

Have they any idea that the US metes out the harshest punishments in the entire world, save for some Third World countries? We lock up more people by far and lead the world in executions. Yet, we continue to have one of the highest crime rates in the world and are without peer as far as violent crime is concerned.  Do they see anything wrong with this picture? Have they read any of the literature on this subject?  Well-known and respected criminologist Michael Tonry, in his latest book (Thinking About Crime) concludes, after a careful review of the literature, that California’s “three-strikes” law had nothing to do with falling crime rates.  One of the most definitive of studies was conducted by Franklin Zimring and his colleagues (“Punishment and Democracy”) and, among other things, they examined California counties where the three strikes laws were used the most and those where the law was used the least.  They found that in those counties where the crime rate fell the most just happened to be the counties where the three strikes laws were used the least; where three-strikes was used the most, the crime decline was the smallest.

All Erler and Janiskee can come up with is another variation of the same old deterrence argument that all we need are tougher laws and we’ll all feel safe.  Have they looked at surveys that show Americans are more fearful of crime than every before?  Have they looked carefully at the lives and communities ruined by so many going to jail or prison? A black child born in 2001 has a 33% chance of going to prison someday!  Why is that?  Are they “born criminals” or are they just cannon fodder for the law and order crowd, who will either round them up and send them to prison or else send them to Iraq?