The Three-Strike Laws: History, Application, Effectiveness and Criticisms


Three strikes laws are statutes enacted by the government that awards harsher sentences for offenders who have been convicted of crimes for the third time (Walsh, 2007). The laws are aimed at discouraging repeat offenders from committing crimes for fear of longer and harsher sentences. Among the U.S. states, 24 have adopted different variations of the laws. The legislation refers to a criminal who has been convicted of wrongdoing in two prior cases as a persistent offender. In many states, only felony crimes are categorized under serious offenses (Karch & Cravens, 2014). However, many states include misdemeanor crimes under offenses that qualify for the application of the three-strikes law. For instance, California applied the legislation to misdemeanor crimes until its repeal in 2012 that recommended the application of the laws to felonies alone (Kieso, 2005).


The practice of considering prior sentences awarded to repeat criminals has been in existence for a long time. However, harsh prison sentences for persistent criminals are recent and are usually cited as the origin of the three-strikes laws. The first three strikes law was passed in 1992 by the state of Washington (Walsh, 2007). It was enacted after the approval of Initiative 93 that mandated courts to award life imprisonment without the possibility of parole to persistent criminals. The state of California followed suit in 1994 and enacted the law through the passage of Proposition 181 (Kieso, 2005). The law was similar to Initiative 193 because it proposed de facto life imprisonment for criminals convicted of serious crimes on three instances. The concept of the law spread to other states and different variations of the legislation have been passed since then. Of all the states that have adopted the law, California’s are the harshest (Kieso, 2005).


The application of the law varies from state to state. However, they have a common tenet that mandates courts to issue life sentences without the possibility of parole before offenders serve at least 25 years (Sentencing Enhancement, n.d). In many states, an offender has to have committed a serious crime for the law to apply during their third conviction. Crimes described as serious include rape, kidnapping, homicide, murder, and sexual abuse. States such as Texas and California have different variations that include the incorporation of lesser serious crimes in the definition of offenses applicable to three-strikes laws (Karch & Cravens, 2014). Texas applies the law even if the three strikes involve misdemeanor crimes. The state’s application of the law has been described as irrational and unfair.


The law has been criticized for failing to reduce the rate of crime in several states that adopt it (Karch & Cravens, 2014). However, it has had a positive impact on the rates of crime in certain states. For example, cases of violent crime have decreased in Los Angeles and Southern California. According to a study conducted by researchers at George Mason University in Virginia, the law reduced rates of crime by approximately 20% (Chen, 2008). The researchers concluded that the three-strikes legislation was reducing the rates of recidivism among persistent offenders. Another study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research noted that the law discourages criminals from engaging in misdemeanor crimes. However, it pushes them to commit more violent crimes. Criminals who are aware of the consequences of committing another crime prefer to commit a serious offense rather than a minor crime because both have similar legal outcomes (Karch & Cravens, 2014).


The law has been criticized because it is an ineffective variation of state statutes that are aimed at lowering the rate of recidivism. The laws have been described as too harsh and unfair to certain offenders. On the other hand, critics argue that they do not deter violent claims because most serious offenses are not premeditated and are committed based on emotions such as anger and passion (Chen, 2008). Moreover, many offenders do not anticipate incarceration and therefore commit crimes without thinking about the consequences. The laws also increase the population of correctional facilities, the cost of running prisons, and place enormous burdens on courts (Domanick, 2004). The legislation has been shown to have a disproportionate impact on minority offenders, especially those belonging to minority groups and poor neighborhoods (Domanick, 2004). Minority offenders are convicted mainly due to drug use and possession. Offenders who live in poor neighborhoods are largely affected because law enforcement officers concentrate their resources in poor neighborhoods because of the overt use and possession of drugs. Prior offenses of drug use and possession increase the likelihood of petty offenders receiving life imprisonment that is considered harsh for misdemeanor crimes (Domanick, 2004).


The three-strike laws are aimed at providing punishment that is commensurate with the severity of the crime for persistent offenders who have been convicted of prior crimes three times. The laws vary from state to state but they have a common tenet that mandates courts to award life sentences to criminals who are convicted for serious crimes for the third time. The effectiveness of the laws varies from state to state. They have been widely criticized for increasing the prison population and awarding harsh sentences that might seem unfair to offenders whose prior sentences involved misdemeanor offenses.


Chen, E. Y. (2008). Impacts of “Three Strikes and You’re Out” on Crime Trends in California and Throughout the United States. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 24, 345-370.

Domanick, J. (2004). Cruel Justice: Three Strikes and the Politics of Crime in America’s Golden State. New York, NY: University of California Press.

Karch, A., & Cravens, M. (2014). Rapid Diffusion and Policy Reform: The Adoption and Modification of Three Strikes Laws. State Politics & Policy Quarterly 14(4), 461-491.

Kieso, D. (2005). Unjust Sentencing and the California Three Strikes Law. New York, NY: LFB Scholarly Publishers.

Sentencing Enhancement: “Three Strikes” Law. (n.d). Web.

Walsh, J. E. (2007). Three Strikes Laws. New York, NY: Greenwood Publishing Group.

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