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The Three Strikes Law in Countering Crime Essay

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Updated: Jan 20th, 2022


Limitation of crime is a necessary measure every government is obliged to take to provide safety for its citizens. Such an issue is urgent especially in the USA with its widespread homicide felony in each state. One of the most profound juristic implementations of the present is the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law and its variations across the states. The three strikes laws force the offenders who convict a severe felony for the third time to serve a mandatory life sentence. The punishment implies an accumulative effect, as the harshness of a verdict increases respectively from the first to the third conviction. The three strikes laws were designed to deter crime by incapacitating serious offenders, and various researches demonstrate the states reached a certain success level in their purpose. Nevertheless, while the positive changes occur, the studies also prove the unjustified decisions against non-violent offenders and the law-triggered increasing felony to be a serious concern.

The Deterrence Effect

The overall positive impact from the implementation of the laws is hard to deny. The preceding level of severe felonies in the United States was critical, and the community considered the three strikes laws enrollment a necessity. After the enactment of the law in Washington in 1994, several other states followed the example and also voted for such law (Siegel & Worrall, 2018). The harshest punishment for the third felony was accepted in California (Siegel & Worrall, 2018). According to the state’s legislation, those who conducted two severe felonies and were convicted for them previously should serve a life sentence for a felony of any severity (Siegel & Worrall, 2018). Such measures against crime in California’s legitimate system are often criticized and debated on.

Several studies prove the efficacy of such strict policy, providing the numbers of criminals being sentenced through certain timeframes. For instance, one study demonstrated a decrease in convictions for the second-strike felons by 20% and for the third-strike felons by 28% (Winter, 2017). Another research found proofs of a felons’ incapacitation effect of these laws: According to it, approximately 31,000 crimes were deterred each year, and the average prison time for a criminal increased to 16.6% due to the three strikes law in California (Winter, 2017). Despite the confirmation of deterring efficacy, the other findings of each research show downsides of the law implementation. Among its drawbacks, there was an increase in violence of felonies that would lead to the third conviction, as an offender would already anticipate the harsh punishment. Another described flaw was that the increase in a number of sentenced offenders caused overpopulation in prisons (Winter, 2017). The studies did not include the cases of life sentencing for non-severe misdemeanors like Lockyer v. Andrade case, which took place in California and caused negative reaction across the country (Boyd, 2014). In total, the improvements provided by the law are largely eliminated by its ambiguous effects.

The Emerged Deterrence Issues

Although these laws result in incarcerating felonies by keeping the convicted away from the society, the effect of prevention remains unclear. In other words, these laws do not prevent violent offences, as the possibility of being sentenced for life does not prove to stop the crimes. While the studies in the early 2000s showed an upgrade in the deterrence effect, the later researches found the measures to be insufficient (Siegel & Worrall, 2018). This could majorly arrive from already existing harsh punishment for violent offenders, which did not restrain the felons from committing crimes (Siegel & Worrall, 2018). The reason could also be the criminals’ acceptance of possible sentencing, which also resulted in the higher severity of crimes. As long as the second-felony offenders can do everything not to get a third conviction, they tend to act more violently regarding the witnesses (Winter, 2017). The other problem of the law is its inequality in strictness among the states.

While the State of California has the harshest legislation on crime, the felons might migrate to other states with lighter jurisdiction measures (Winter, 2017). While comparing the data in the mid-1990’s, Marvel and Moody stated that the approximately 26% of increased long-term homicide rate in 24 states with the three strikes laws comparing to the states which had not enact the law (in Winter, 2017). Such outcomes prove the inefficiency of the deterrence legislation and the fact that felons’ comprehension of the consequences does not encourage them from not committing a crime. Moreover, the laws might push the offenders for harsher actions to avoid the third strike or for acting irrationally due to unavoidable punishment. The overall impact of these laws is not compelling, considering the increasing criminals’ severity created by the legislation.

Unjustified Sentencing

One of the major drawbacks of the three strikes laws is the possibility of convicting a person who conducted a misdemeanor to a life sentence. The laws are lighter in the majority of the states, but California had the most relentless variation of them. While in several districts the third felony needed to be severe for convicting to a life sentence, the Californian law allowed punishing offenders with any kind of the third felony (Siegel & Worrall, 2018). This resulted in several convictions where the innocent people were punished with the harshest measure.

Such cases as Lockyer v. Andrade and Ewing v. California (2003) caused wide public resonance, as the defendants were life sentenced (Boyd, 2014). In the Lockyer v. Andrade 538 U.S. 63, 66–67 (2003) case, having already received his preceding convictions for non-violent burglary and drug possession, Andrade had a third conviction for the approximately $140 worth videotapes’ theft and thus was life-sentenced. The Ewing v. California 538 U.S. 11 (2003) case had certain similarities to the previous one (Boyd, 2014). Ewing, age 40, was arrested after an attempt of stealing three golf clubs (Neubauer & Fradella, 2017). Ewing’s previous felonies did not allow classifying the crime as a misdemeanor violation, and the District Attorney sentenced him to 25 years in prison under the California three strikes law (Neubauer & Fradella, 2017). Although the 2012 contribution to the law limited the third felony to “serious or violent” (Siegel & Worrall, 2018), the law caused unjustified punishment for several individuals. This shows how the lack of the law flexibility created a considerable problem in an adequate prosecution.


To summarize, the three strikes law and its variations caused several advancements in countering crime. Among the positive aspects, there was an increased number of the third offense sentences and an overall crime reduction. However, the impact was temporary and yielded over time, and, as the studies showed, the positive effect of the law was almost eliminated by its harsh consequences. The studies showed the relationship between the homicides, violent offenses, and the legislation, and the outcomes prove the violent behavior arrived from the strictness of the laws. The other main disadvantage that led to a possibly inadequate sentencing was the limited flexibility of these laws. As a result, several citizens were sent to serve the mandatory life sentence for literally non-severe offences after receiving the third conviction. Any law has its flaws by default, as the people’s interactions are hard to control by artificial rules. Nevertheless, the three strikes laws show to cause more losses than benefits. The US government already made its first important steps for its upgrading, and the further actions should eliminate all the existing drawbacks. Without the latter, the strike laws may become a powerful deterring system.


Boyd, R. (2014). Narratives of sacrificial expulsion in the Supreme Court’s Affirmation of California’s ‘Three Strikes and You’re Out’ Law. San Diego State University Press, 11, 84-108. Web.

Neubauer, D. W., & Fradella, H. F. (2017). America’s courts and the criminal justice system (12th ed.). New York, NY: Cengage.

Siegel, L. J., & Worrall, J. L. (2018). Introduction to criminal justice (16-th ed.). Australia: Cengage Learning.

Winter, H. (2017). Issues in law and economics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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