In March 1994, California Governor Pete Wilson signed into law a bill which, among other features, doubled the nominal sentence
for second time offenders, established a minimum 25 year sentence for third time offenders, limited the amount of "good time"
earned by prisoners, and limited judicial discretion in sentencing and in overlooking prior convictions in applying this law. (The
California Supreme Court subsequently struck down this latter restriction on judicial discretion [SAN DIEGO CO. v. ROMERO,
S.Ct. S045097, June 20, 1996]). In November of the same year, California voters signaled their approval of that legislation by a 72
to 28 margin in a ballot initiative. While California was not the first jurisdiction to enact legislation popularized under the rubric,
"three strikes, you’re out," when it did so, the visibility of the practice crossed a new threshold. The time seemed ripe to some to
examine the implications of such a law systematically.
The chapters collected in this volume began as conference papers at the Association for Criminal Justice Research (California) in
October 1994. Unfettered by any pretense at an overarching theoretical framework, the chapters can be read in any order without
loss of meaning, and, for better or worse, each stands independent of the others. Some have the "three strikes" legislation as a
focal point; others use "three strikes" as an excuse to write the chapter they were going to write anyway. Some of these latter
chapters are worth reading even if "three strikes" is relegated to a cameo appearance.
There is some attempt to group the chapters by four sub-themes: legal and historical issues, implementation, impact on actors in
the criminal justice system, and a residual category—"special issues." Why the chapter on the "effect on a local criminal justice
system" belongs in the section on implementation instead of the section with chapters on the effect on police, courts, and
corrections, or vice versa, remains a mystery. In essence, there are eleven chapters looking at or at least mentioning "three
strikes" followed by an attempt at synthesis and foretelling implications.
Ziegler and del Carmen place "three strikes" into legal and historical context, reviewing (1) how the Supreme Court has viewed
proportionality as a doctrine for guiding "cruel and unusual punishment" interpretations and (2) the separation of powers issues.
Simon offers an essay on criminology that helps compare current "three strikes" laws with similar efforts of seven decades ago.
Greenwood et al. reprint a RAND report estimating a mathematical model of the progress of a criminal through the system, the
cost of maintaining and operating the system, and the level of criminal activity outside the system. Testing various policy
alternatives with this model, they conclude that the California law is the least efficient means of reducing crime among the
alternatives they test (in terms of cost per crime prevented) and that these costs are likely to be paid for out of monies that would
otherwise be spent for higher education.
Cushman contributes a primer for attentive citizens and local government officials about what to expect with full implementation of
"three strikes," drawing on the experiences of Santa Clara County. Wiatrowski provides a history of the development of policing
and how the adoption of "three strikes" changes assumptions about the role of police in crime control. Feeley and Kamin present
"three strikes" as yet another example of a "moral panic" or "symbolic crusade" to which the courts will adapt. Austin looks at data
on prison populations over time and suggests that, depending on the size of the "strike zone," the most dire predictions about
negative effects of "three strikes" on prison populations may be exaggerated.
A final section discusses residual issues. Surette explores the media’s ability to construct a social reality in which "three strikes" is
not only accepted but also enthusiastically welcomed. Klein considers whether or not "three strikes" is likely to deter gang activity,
concludes that it is not, and ends with a listing questions he has helped defense attorneys defending gang members formulate to
ask prosecution expert witnesses. Casey and Wiatrowski note that the implications of "three strikes" for females has not been well
thought out, suggest that women may not be as directly affected as men, but continue to urge consideration of a "different needs"
approach to sentencing women. The section ends with a thought-provoking, well written—even entertaining—essay by Geis on
why white-collar criminals ought to be more susceptible to "three-strikes" as a deterrent than street offenders. Continuing the
baseball analogy, Geis argues that white-collar criminals are given a base on balls, while we seek strikes on street criminals.
(Those of us of a certain age enjoy Geis’ musing about how much good Richard Nixon could have done for fellow inmates had he
The editors offer a brief summary chapter, suggesting issues for future consideration. The most notable part of this chapter is their
statement, "The major policy goal of the three-strikes law was to decrease the occurrence of serious crime" (p. 271). I would urge
the editors to reread their volume and to cite any empirical support for this statement. To the extent that any theme emerges from
this collection, it is at odds with this statement. The editors may have been trying to convey that this was the political and legalistic
logic behind "three strikes," but Klein seems to represent the thoughts of the contributors when he opines "Again, legalistic
evidence is divorced from empirical evidence" (p. 210). Simply put, the picture that emerges from this volume is of a policy
adopted in reaction to fear of crime as a political issue, without an empirical base, and without any internal logic if the goal of the
policy is as the editors suggest. Either the goal is different or the policy is doomed to failure. (If the goal is not different, one can
draw one’s own conclusions about the motivations and/or intelligence level of the policy’s proponents.)
This book would be of value to individuals unfamiliar with "three strikes," and some of the individual chapters are valuable more
broadly for novices in the field. Scholars are likely to be frustrated by the fact that the whole is no more than the sum of the parts.