Cover: California's New Three-Strikes Law

California's New Three-Strikes Law

Benefits, Costs, and Alternatives

by James Chiesa

Research Brief

Public outrage over crime has found political expression in the proposal and enactment of various laws mandating lengthy sentences for repeat felons. Put forward under the slogan “three strikes and you’re out,” these laws generally prescribe that felons found guilty of a third serious crime be locked up for 25 years to life. The California law, which went into effect in March 1994, may be the most sweeping of these. Although the first two “strikes” accrue for serious felonies, the crime that triggers the life sentence can be any felony. Furthermore, the law doubles sentences for a second strike, requires that these extended sentences be served in prison (rather than in jail or on probation), and limits “good time” earned during prison to 20 percent of the sentence given (rather than 50 percent, as under the previous law).

In November, Californians will vote on Proposition 184, an initiative essentially identical to the new three-strikes law.[1] Should Californians approve the initiative and so ratify the legislature’s action? Or should they reject it, sending the message that legislators should reconsider the new law, perhaps in favor of an alternative mandatory-sentencing measure? What about other states? Should they follow California’s lead?

In reaching a decision, Californians will naturally be affected by a variety of subjective factors, for example, fear of crime, sympathy for victims and their families, and anger at violent criminals. But voters should also have access to hard evidence regarding the implications of the law: How much crime reduction can they expect from the three-strikes law? And how much will it cost? What about the alternatives? And where will the money come from?

RAND undertook to answer these questions. An interdisciplinary team of researchers constructed and ran analytic models taking advantage of data on arrest rates, time served, prison populations, and length of criminal careers. The models predicted how populations of offenders on the street and in prison would change under the differing sentencing provisions of the new law and under various alternatives, relative to the previous law. Using data on these populations, the researchers determined crime rates and costs. The latter were analyzed in conjunction with an ongoing RAND assessment of California’s budgetary future. The findings, in a nutshell, were as follows:

  • Both the benefits and the costs of the new law will be substantial.
  • Alternatives can be devised that would achieve most or all of the benefits at less cost.
  • California’s budget is so constrained that it is unlikely that the new law will be fully implemented.

What Will Be the Benefits and Costs of the New Law?

If fully implemented as written, the new law will reduce serious felonies committed by adults[2] in California between 22 and 34 percent. About a third of the felonies eliminated will be violent crimes such as murder, rape, and assaults causing great bodily injury. The other two-thirds will be felonies that are less violent or nonviolent but still serious, including less injurious assaults, most robberies, and burglaries of residences.

Figure 1. Percentage reduction in serious crime from new law and alternatives

Figure 1

This reduction in crime will be bought at a cost of an extra $4.5 billion to $6.5 billion per year in current dollars. The intent of the three-strikes law is, of course, to lock up repeat offenders longer, and that requires the construction and operation of more prisons. Some police and court costs may be saved in not having to deal so often with such offenders once they are locked up, but greater prison costs overwhelm such savings.

What About the Alternatives?

The new three-strikes law has been criticized by some for casting too wide a net. It is argued that the public is not really as concerned about minor felonies or even residential burglaries as it is about truly violent crimes and that it will not want to pay to keep less violent felons locked up. Indeed, the RAND analysis showed that, more often than not, the third strike will accrue for a minor felony such as motor vehicle theft, as opposed to one of the serious crimes mentioned above.

Figure 2. Percentage increase in cost from new law and alternatives

Figure 2

In view of the width of the “net” and the power of the less-publicized provisions of the new law, could an alternative be constructed in which some benefit would be sacrificed to achieve great savings? What if there were no third-strike provision? Or, what if the extended sentences applied only if a violent felony were committed? What about one of the alternatives considered by the legislature, the “Rainey bill,” which would have been harsher on violent felons and more lenient on others? Finally, what would happen if the state got rid of “strikes” and instead guaranteed that those convicted of a serious crime serve their full sentence? In other words, what about adopting a law that sends all those convicted of a serious felony to prison, eliminates “good time” for such felons so that they must serve their full term, and shifts some minor felons from prison to probation?

Figure 3. Distribution of California General-Fund Appropriations, FY94

Figure 3

Figures 1 and 2 compare the benefits and costs of the new law and these alternatives, relative to the old law. As you might expect, for the most part, the more focused alternatives would be both less costly than the new law and less effective at reducing crime.[3] But some of them would not be much less effective. For example, the second-strike-only alternative would be 85 percent as effective as the new law. This has an interesting implication: Only 15 percent of the new law’s crime reduction effect will come from its most publicized provision — the third strike.

But for all the alternatives to the new law, the cost would drop more than the effectiveness. For example, applying the new law’s penalties only to violent felons would save half its extra cost but retain two-thirds of its effectiveness.

Figure 4. Budgetary Squeeze on Higher Education and Other Services, FY02

Figure 4

Cost-effectiveness, though, is not necessarily the most important criterion. To some people, a reduction in serious crime on the order of 30 percent would be attractive no matter what the cost. However, it seems unlikely that anyone would want to pay more for that than they had to. In this context, the guaranteed-full-term alternative could be of interest, for it would be just as effective as the new law at substantially lower cost. The advantages of this alternative point up the shortcomings of the new law: The full-term alternative would increase sentences for all serious offenders — even first-timers who are near the beginning of their criminal careers — and pay for it by not imprisoning many minor felons. The new law, in contrast, does not crack down on first-time serious offenders. Instead, it expends large amounts of money keeping older criminals — including many convicted of minor offenses — locked up. Data on criminal careers suggest that the term of imprisonment for many of these older offenders will last beyond the point at which they would resume a life of crime if released, meaning that costs will be incurred for no crime-reduction benefit.

Where Will the Money Come From?

The money to finance three strikes will have to come from somewhere. The choices, however, are limited. Figure 3 shows the current allocation of expenditures from the state’s general fund. Proposition 98 locked into the state constitution a minimum level of spending on K-12 education that is expected to increase dramatically in the coming years — from 36 percent of the general fund now to 47 percent in 2002. Health and welfare costs have been going up for a long time and show no signs of leveling off. The new three-strikes law will double the fraction of the general fund consumed by the Department of Corrections. Clearly, these increases will put enormous pressure on everything else the state spends money on (see Figure 4). That includes, most prominently, college education, but also a variety of other services ranging from controlling environmental pollution through managing parks and fighting brush fires to regulating insurance and other industries.

It seems unlikely that Californians will put up with drastic reductions in these services, but increased taxes are decidedly unpopular. Clearly, something’s got to give. It may be the three-strikes law itself. Criminal justice officials may simply not have the money to fully implement it. If that turns out to be the case, the new law will have less effect on serious crime than that estimated here. How much less is impossible to predict.


  • [1] Passage of the law in initiative form will prevent repeal or amendment (other than to further the law’s purpose) by the legislature.
  • [2] Juvenile offenders will not be affected by this law. They now account for about one-sixth of all arrests for violent crimes.
  • [3] For these figures, we take the estimated benefit and cost of the new law from the middle of the ranges given above — 28 percent and $5.5 billion.

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