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Still Striking Out: Ten Years of California’s Three Strikes Law

  • Date
  • March 5, 2004
  • Author
  • Jason Ziedenberg

Released in March 2004, this report from the Justice Policy Institute, an OSI grantee, analyzes the 10-year legacy of the three strikes” mandatory minimum sentencing law in California. According to the report, the law has lengthened the terms of incarceration for tens of thousands more people; today, over 42,000 persons—or more than one-in-four prisoners—are serving a doubled or 25-years-to-life sentence.

Some questions that the report raises are:

  • How has California’s “three strikes” law impacted the size of the state prison population?
  • Has the “three strikes” law had a disproportionate effect on people convicted of non-violent offenses?
  • Has the “three strikes” law disproportionately impacted African-Americans and Latinos?
  • Has the “three strikes” law been associated with larger decreases in crime within California (county-by-county), and how does California's crime drop—and those of other states that have "three strikes" laws—compare with states without them?
  • What has been the fiscal impact of “three strikes” in California?
  • How has “three strikes” impacted the children of people who are imprisoned?

Among the significant findings are the following:

  • The California prison population grew from 125,473 in 1994 to 153,783 in June 2003, a 22.6 percent increase. An increasingly larger part of that population is made up of people serving a second or third strike;
  • People sentenced under the “three strikes” law are more likely to be serving a sentence under the law for non-violent offenses than violent ones;
  • Social scientists have shown that despite the fact that racial and ethnic minorities are incarcerated at rates much higher than whites, rates of criminal behavior and offending are similar between groups for a wide variety of offenses. Research has shown that, the more low-level the offense—such as the kinds of crimes for which most "strikers" are serving time—the less difference between rates of criminal behavior between whites, African-Americans, and Latinos. As shown with other kinds of criminal justice policies, “three strikes” has had a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic communities.

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