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March 16, 2008

Could tough three-strikes laws increase crime?

Thanks to this post at Volokh, I found this notable new paper from a Harvard researcher titled "I'd Rather Be Hanged for a Sheep than a Lamb: The Unintended Consequences of 'Three-Strikes' Laws."   Here is the abstract:

Strong sentences are common "tough on crime" tool used to reduce the incentives for individuals to participate in criminal activity. However, the design of such policies often ignores other margins along which individuals interested in participating in crime may adjust. I use California's Three Strikes law to identify several effects of a large increase in the penalty for a broad set of crimes. Using criminal records data, I estimate that Three Strikes reduced participation in criminal activity by 20 percent for second-strike eligible offenders and a 28 percent decline for third-strike eligible offenders. However, I find two unintended consequences of the law. First, because Three Strikes flattened the penalty gradient with respect to severity, criminals were more likely to commit more violent crimes. Among third-strike eligible offenders, the probability of committing violent crimes increased by 9 percentage points. Second, because California's law was more harsh than the laws of other nearby states, Three Strikes had a "beggar-thy-neighbor" effect increasing the migration of criminals with second and third-strike eligibility to commit crimes in neighboring states. The high cost of incarceration combined with the high cost of violent crime relative to non-violent crime implies that Three Strikes may not be a cost-effective means of reducing crime.

March 16, 2008 at 06:22 PM | Permalink


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"Five years ago, the Justice Policy Institute sought to determine whether the long mandatory minimum sentences under the Three Strikes law were reducing crime. The research noted: “Since California counties enforce the ‘Three Strikes’ law in different ways, it was hypothesized that counties that employed a strict enforcement policy would experience higher levels of crime reduction.”17

"To test the theory, the authors updated this 1999 analysis, and examined official county-by-county reported crime and arrest statistics between 1993 and 2002 (the latest available) for California’s 12 largest counties, including: Alameda, Contra Costa, Fresno, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernadino, San Francisco, Sacramento, Santa Clara, San Diego, and Ventura county. These counties account for over three-fourths of the state’s population and four-fifths of its major crime. We compared the six counties that used the Three Strikes law more heavily with the six counties that used the law less frequently to see if there were differences in the homicide rate, violent crime rate, and the index crime rate. The counties’ use of the Three Strikes law and their ranking was based on the number of strikers in the prison population per 1,000 felony arrests per year, averaged out over the nine years from 1994 through 2002.

"As the table and graph below show, counties that used the Three Strikes law at a higher rate did not experience greater reductions in crime than counties that used the law less frequently. In fact, San Francisco, the county that used the law least frequently (at approximately one-fifth the average rate of the 12 largest counties), achieved higher reductions in its violent crime rate than any other county."

Still Striking Out: Ten Years of California’s Three Strikes, p 15.

So much for most of the Volokh commentators' theories.

Posted by: George | Mar 17, 2008 2:58:28 AM

Corrected link:

Still Striking Out: Ten Years of California’s Three Strikes, p 15. (pdf)

Posted by: George | Mar 17, 2008 3:01:24 AM


Posted by: Dott. claudio giusti | Mar 18, 2008 3:54:41 PM

Although three strikes laws are effective at preventing unnecessary crime, they result in an elevation in crime in several ways.
Set aside, for a moment, the crimes of desire or ignorance which no laws will deter. A harsher sentence mandate may prevent any given group from committing serious crimes, but would in turn result in a proliferation of lesser crimes to compensate for them and acheive the same monetary end.
Furthermore, three strikes laws often result in grossly immoral and perverse judiciary decisions, for example three years for manslaughter and life imprisonment for a third strike of stealing food. This in turn leads to complete loss of respect for and trust of the judicial system which leads to yet a greater increase in crime.
These laws were conceived with good intentions by inherently deluded individuals who, in their attempt to solve a negative effect, completely ignored the problems they were supposed to fix, which still exist today.

I'm not a lawyer or student, I just accidentally stumbled accross your blog looking for OSU's Mechanical Engineering Dept. and found it interesting

Posted by: Daniel | May 11, 2008 3:31:00 AM

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