The recent California Attorney General's Crime Index report showed that crime declined a whopping 13.2 percent in 1999. This continues a trend that began in the early 1990s. While the news continues to be good for Californians, there is heated debate about the cause of the decline. Liberal academics generally argue that it is the good economy during bad times, the desperate turn to crime. Other liberals are certain that it is the increased use of community policing. Yet the public seems stubbornly convinced that the cause is the Three Strikes initiative passed in 1994. This law requires judges to give enhanced sentences to second time felons, if their crime is classified as "serious" or "violent," and mandates a sentence of 25 years to life for a third felony.
The liberal antipathy to Three Strikes is simple: it is a "retributive" law; it seeks to punish criminals rather than rehabilitate them. In approving Three Strikes the public showed its intense dissatisfaction with the liberal rehabilitation theories because they had failed miserably in reducing the high rate of recidivism. The public's greatest antipathy, however, was reserved for soft-on-crime judges who refused to hold criminals individually responsible for their actions. Three Strikes gave judges no discretion to dismiss prior felonies or to sentence two and three strike criminals to probation or alternative punishment.
A 1996 California Supreme Court decision, however, overturned the prohibition on judicial discretion to strike prior felonies "in the furtherance of justice." Some anti-Three Strikes commentators praised the decision as the first step in the "restoration of democracy." In their eyes, the Three Strikes initiative was merely the result of widespread "panic" about a crime rate that was already declining, and therefore represented "soundbite" populism at its worst. After all, in the ideological universe of liberal criminologists, no one is individually responsible for his actions. Rather, it is the economy, class exploitation, an abusive childhood, low self-esteem, or an host of other causes that are the true malefactors. Yet the court decision has had remarkably little impact. Since 1994 more than fifty thousand felons have been sentenced to enhanced prison terms because of the Three Strikes law. Since it is well known that a small number of criminals commit a disproportionately large number of crimes, simple logic would conclude that increased incarceration will inevitably lower the crime rates.
Criminologists and legal scholars, however, would never use simple logic when complicated and abstruse statistical manipulation is available. A recent study coauthored by Frankline E. Zimring, a Berkeley law professor and one of the leading critics of Three Strikes, concludes that the legislation has not played a major role in the reduction of crime. The study, which was released amid much fanfare and world-wide publicity, even went so far as to maintain that Three Strikes produced no measurable deterrent effect upon criminals.
Whether or not the law had a deterrent effect is, of course, beside the point since its express purpose was, in the words of the California Penal Code, "to ensure longer prison sentences and greater punishment for those who commit a felony and have been previously convicted of serious and/or violent crimes." Yet there is overwhelming evidence that Three strikes has been the principal factor in crime reduction as well as a significant deterrent to crime.
Zimring points out that the California crime rate began to decline in 1991, before the enactment of Three Strikes. Crime continued to decline after the passage of the law, but there is no evidence, Zimring alleges, that the rate of decline was any greater because of Three Strikes. Yet even the most unsophisticated statistical analysis indicates that there was a significantly sharper decline in crime rates in 1995-99 than before Three Strikes. Homicide rates are generally considered to be the most reliable crime statistics because homicides are almost always reported to the police because of the seriousness of the crime. Prior to Three Strikes, the homicide rate in California was increasing at a rate of 1.57 percent. In 1995-99 the average decline in the homicide rate was a dramatic 12 percent. Neither the economy nor community policing are likely to account for this sharp downward rate of decline.
One important element of the Zimring study was designed to conceal the impact of Three Strikes. The most important effects of Three Strikes could not have begun to appear before 1997 at the earliest. Had there been no Three Strikes law, felons convicted in 1994 would have received sentences that could not have put them on the streets before 1997. The enhanced sentences mandated by Three Strikes have kept many felons in prison who would have otherwise been paroled in 1997. Thus the statistics from 1997 and beyond are crucial in determining whether three strikes has had a significant impact on the reduction of crime rates. Where does the Zimring study end? 1996! Its conclusion: Three Strikes has had no measurable deterrent effect on crime.
Common sense and honest statistics, on the other hand, demonstrate that Three Strikes has had a profound impact. Zimring uses statistics in a dishonest attempt to bolster his ideological antipathy for laws that provide certain punishment for criminals and hold them individually responsible for their crimes. This is precisely what Three Strikes promised to do and it has delivered on its promise-and in the process has provided a powerful and an effective deterrent to crime.