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One of the most important tenets of criminal justice is that the punishment given should be commensurate with the seriousness of the crime. In that regard, critics of the three-strikes law argue that it is unfair about the punishment of repeat criminals. On the other hand, opponents of the legislation argue that it is an effective deterrent against crime that offers justice to victims of serious crimes. The three-strikes law is legislation passed in 1994 under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that provides for the mandatory life sentencing of an offender who has committed a serious felony and whose criminal record includes two crimes. The three-strikes law is not a fair and effective method for deterring crime because it promotes the unfair sentencing of criminals, unsuccessfully discourages crime, and overpopulates prisons.
The Unfair Sentencing of Criminals
The main reason for the enactment of the legislation was to send dangerous criminals to prison to improve the safety of people in communities. It was aimed at criminals who were at the greatest risk of committing serious crimes. However, in certain states, the law does not target only criminals who have committed serious felonies, but also those who commit misdemeanors (Neubauer & Fradella, 2017). For example, in the state of California, instances of mandatory life sentences for misdemeanors have been reported. According to statistics, 59% of offenders in prison are arrested for minor crimes (Neubauer & Fradella, 2017). It is unfair for an offender to be given a life sentence for a misdemeanor. The three-strikes legislation is also unreasonable because it does not allow for individual variability about the third-time crime (Cole, Smith, & DeJong, 2016). The standardized sentencing provided by the legislation does not treat third strikes individually but generally. The only requirement for the mandatory sentencing is for a criminal to be found guilty. Some offenders have been sentenced to more than 20 years in prison for possessing a small quantity of an illegal drug.
The law promotes injustice in cases that involve young criminals and victimless crimes. Young offenders who have been convicted of previous crimes involving misdemeanors are treated unjustly when they are given a life sentence for third strike incarceration (Neubauer & Fradella, 2017). In many cases, juvenile offenders engage in criminal activities because they are not mature enough to make responsible decisions. Factors such as domestic violence and physical abuse push them into a life of crime. The criminal justice system does not consider the circumstances under which young people commit certain crimes such as shoplifting, vandalism, and trespass (Kelly, 2015). In other cases, some convicted criminals are wrongfully incarcerated. They might be law-abiding citizens, but because of their previous criminal records, they are tried under the three-strikes law and given harsh sentences. It is unfair to give a life sentence to an individual for a misdemeanor simply because they have been previously convicted on two instances (Neubauer & Fradella, 2017). The law is unjust because it authorizes county prosecutors to decide the individuals who are eligible for a life sentence. Also, they contain a provision that allows minor crimes to trigger a third strike, and so, carry a life sentence or a minimum prison term of 25 years without parole (Cole et al., 2016). For example, Leandro Andrade was given a life sentence for stealing videotapes from Kmart. The verdict was harsh because parole would be given after 50 years.
Unsuccessful Deterrence against Crime
Government statistics and research studies have shown that the three-strikes legislation is not an effective method for deterring crime. For example, since the implementation of the law in California, statistics show that violent crime has increased significantly (Cole et al., 2016). A report released by the Centers on Juvenile and Criminal Justice revealed that the law was ineffective in deterring crime. The findings of the study suggested that crime rates were on a downward trend even before the three strikes law was enacted in 1994 (Kelly, 2015). The study was conducted by sociology professor Robert Nash Parker. The study titled “Why California’s ‘Three Strikes’ Fails as crime and Economic policy, and What to Do,” was published in the California Journal of Politics and Policy. California has the toughest three strikes law in the US. Offenders with prior records of serious felonies are given a minimum sentence of 25 years to life for the third strike (Kelly, 2015). The study included a survey that showed that violent crimes were reduced by a similar rate in all states regardless of whether they had the legislation or not (Kelly, 2015).
Proponents of the three-strikes legislation argue that the law deters crime because of the life sentence threat they offer especially to repeat offenders. However, studies have shown that prior arrests and convictions, as well as the life sentence threat, do not change the behavior of offenders (Cole et al., 2016). Criminals do not refrain from crime because of the fear of being caught (Kelly, 2015). The aforementioned study concluded that the reduction in violent crimes was caused by a decline in alcohol consumption. They argued that it is illogical to advocate for the continuance of the three-strikes legislation because it deters crime. They recommended the implementation of more stringent policies to curb alcohol consumption in California to lower the rates of violent crime (Kelly, 2015).
Overpopulation of Prisons
Statistics have shown that the rates of incarceration in the United States are very high relative to its population. The US accounts for 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the global prison population (Kelly, 2015). Crime rates have dropped in the US in the last two decades. However, the population of prisons has increased significantly. This increase can be attributed to the enactment of tough laws such as the three strikes that give harsh sentences for minor crimes (Welsh & Harris, 2016). The US prison system is overcrowded and expensive to run. The three-strikes legislation adds more prisoners to the system, regardless of the situation. Keeping a prisoner in jail for life is expensive, and states are spending large amounts of taxpayers’ money to fund the prison system even though some prisoners do not deserve to be in prison (Yezer, 2014). Many states are looking for ways to reduce their prison populations to lower the costs of housing life-sentence prisoners. Some are considering pursuing less costly alternative rehabilitation methods. The three-strikes law increases the prison population because it is ineffective at deterring crime.
The US spends about $70 billion on the prison system, which represents a forty percent increase in the last two decades (Yezer, 2014). This is proof enough that the enactment of the three-strikes law did not reduce crime. Another important factor that supports the argument that the law is ineffective is the rate of recidivism. According to the Bureau of Statistics, the rate of recidivism is as high as 43% (Neubauer & Fradella, 2017). For instance, in 2005, the rate of recidivism was 68percent. Increased cases of violence have been reported in jails as well as the proliferation of gangs. The justice system has focused its resources on locking up offenders rather than rehabilitating them to ensure that they do not turn back to crime after their release (Neubauer & Fradella, 2017).
The three-strikes law was enacted in 1994 under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The goal was to lower crime rates by discouraging habitual criminals from engaging in crime. However, research has shown that the legislation has been ineffective in the achievement of that goal. The prison population has grown tremendously and the decrease in crime observed has been attributed to a decrease in alcohol consumption. The legislation is unfair because some criminals who are incarcerated for misdemeanors may qualify for a life sentence under the three-strikes law. The justice system does not treat cases individually even though it should. The provisions of the legislation allow a misdemeanor to trigger a life sentence. The law does not deter crime because it does not compel repeat criminals to change their behavior because of its life-sentence threat and the fear of getting caught. Moreover, crime rates were on a downward trend before the laws were implemented.
Cole, G. F., Smith, C. E., & DeJong, C. (2016). Criminal justice in America (9th ed.). New York, NY: Cengage Learning.
Kelly, W. R. (2015). Criminal justice system at the crossroads: Transforming crime and punishment. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Neubauer, D. W., & Fradella, H. F. (2017). America’s courts and the criminal justice system (13th ed.). New York, NY: Cengage.
Welsh, W. N., & Harris, P. W. (2016). Criminal justice policy and planning: Planned change (5th ed.). New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.
Yezer, A. M. (2014). Economics of crime and enforcement. New York, NY: M. E.Sharpe.