U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Impact of "Three Strikes and You're Out" Laws: What Have We Learned?

NCJ Number
W J Dickey
Date Published
21 pages
Three-strikes legislation is discussed with respect to what is known about its impacts and the unanswered questions about its effects.
Three-strikes laws impose severe prison sentences for third felony convictions and aim to address repetitive, serious criminal behavior. Their popularity as a crime-fighting tool comes without much examination or their effectiveness or impact. Variations among the laws make comparisons of their impacts difficult. At least 22 States and the Federal Government have enacted such laws. The California law is the most far-reaching and the one that provides the most data for analysis. It has resulted in the imprisonment of 1,300 offenders on third-strike felonies and more than 14,000 for second-strike felonies. However, considerable disagreement exists regarding its effects on crime. Eighty-five percent of the offenders sentenced under the law are sentenced for nonviolent offenses. In addition, the law has resulted in the early release of some offenders due to the crowding caused by people accused under three strikes and awaiting trial. The law has increased workloads of judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys and has caused delays in other criminal cases and in civil cases. The law is also apparently being used as a tool in plea bargaining. Racial disparity in the application of the laws is also a matter of concern. The law tries to address the important problem of repetitive, dangerous offenders, but it is also important to consider whether more viable ways exist to avoid the apparent unintended consequences while being fairer and more effective. Reference notes and appended overview of State three-strikes laws