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Did “Three Strikes” Laws Bring Down California’s Violent Crime Rate?

| June 15, 2011

Over the last two decades, California has seen a steady reduction in violent crime. Supporters of the “tough on crime” approach take the credit, claiming that “three-strikes” provisions implemented in the mid-1990s are responsible for the drop. Advocates of these policies argue that high incarceration rates act as a deterrent to potential criminals, which translates into a lower crime rate and a safer society.

The correlation seems clear enough at first, but an article by Dan Walters in the Sacramento Bee highlights new studies showing that three-strikes provisions have little or nothing to do with fluctuations in crime rate. Robert Parker from the University of California—Riverside recently published one of these studies. His research found that three strikes policies “show little or no impact…on violent crime rates in California and elsewhere.” Instead, Parker believes the most influential factors on crime are economic and social factors, which could be better controlled using rehabilitation programs instead of incarceration. Texas adopted this strategy in 2007 when the state spent $241 million to expand rehabilitation programs instead of spending $2 billion on expanding the prison system. This measure saved $1.75 billion and brought down the state recidivism rate.

If research shows that three strikes policies have negligible effects on crime rates, then a “lock ‘em up, and throw away the key” policy is wasteful. Parker’s study estimates that if California were to abandon the (ostensibly) “tough on crime” approach the state could save around $2.3 billion per year. This coupled with the typical drop in recidivism rate that rehabilitation projects bring make such reforms an attractive proposition.