The theory behind “three strikes” laws is that it restrains habitual law breakers by upping the risks every time they engaged in their favorite pastime. It makes criminal culpability cumulative: three smaller crimes add up to the same punishment as one big one. These laws first arrived in the 90s, under President Clinton. I remember my reaction at the time was 1) maybe it will work as deterrenceand really reduce crime and 2) if a twice-convicted criminal knows that the third “strike” will send him away for a long time and commits a felony anyway, that’s his choice, and nobody should feel sorry for him. I admit that I still have vestiges of this rationale lurking in my brain; it’s the Baretta Principle, from the TV show that made Robert Blake a star before he had his wife killed: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”
Ironically, Blake did do the crime and never had to do the time, but then, he was a star. His career hasn’t been going so well, though.
There is some evidence that “three strikes” laws work. Some states, like California, have recorded dramatic drops in crime rates since the enactment the measure. In a 2011 report, Los Angeles reported crime had decreased by half since 1994, when its “habitual felon’ statute went into effect. Data from other studies suggests that this is an illusion. Continue reading