By Chris Levister
When California voters overwhelmingly passed "Three Strikes and You're Out" law in 1994, they believed it would strike fear in the heart of habitual, violent criminals by mandating harsher penalties including a 25-year-to-life prison sentence for some offenders.
But according to research by a University of California, Riverside criminologist, the get-tough- on-criminals policy is costly, ineffective and has done nothing to reduce the crime rate despite expanding the state's prison population.
In a rigorous analysis of crime in California and the nation, sociology professor Robert Nash Parker determined that crime has been decreasing at about the same rate in every state for 20 years, regardless of whether three-strikes policies are in place or not.
“There is not a single shred of scientific evidence, research or data to show that three strikes caused a significant decline in violence in California or elsewhere in the last 20 years,” Parker said, adding that the downward trend began two years before the California law was enacted.
Citing "logic, data and research," Parker contends that they uniformly show little or no impact of three strikes policy on violent crime rates in California and elsewhere."
He compared historic crime patterns in California and other states with similar laws to those without such laws and found they "show little difference in ... pattern of violent crime."
Parker cites other studies that attribute crime rate declines to economic and social factors, such as alcohol consumption, rather than policing and sentencing policies and suggests it's "better to use alcohol policy to control violence than three strikes.
“If California's crime decline were a Three Strikes effect, we would expect to see the drop in arrests concentrated among the targeted groups. Instead, the decline is spread evenly over the 90 percent of all potential offenders not affected by Three Strikes and the 10 percent who were.”
Parker says were California to change its approach to crime and comply with the Supreme Court order to reduce the prison population, it could save $2.3 billion a year in prison costs.
"California needs to stop gorging itself at the all-you-can-eat buffet of imprisonment," says Parker.
He says while opponents of three strikes reform insist increased incarceration, including longer sentences cause crime to drop, a host of other factors are in play.
He cites improved law enforcement strategies, advances in computer analysis and innovative technology; the waning of the crack cocaine epidemic that soared from 1984 to 1990, which made cocaine cheaply available. The graying of America characterized by the fastest-growing segment of the US population – baby boomers – passing the age of 50 and national campaigns about responsible drinking have affected drinking habits.
His study suggesting a link to alcohol consumption and unemployment provides more fuel for the ever-burning crime debate.
Alcohol plays a major role in violent crime of all types, says Parker.
“Our research in Riverside shows that gang members overwhelmingly favor alcohol use to get ready to do their crimes. The number of arrests for violent crimes where alcohol is a factor has dropped sharply.”
In fact says Parker, alcohol consumption has been dropping in the U.S. since the early 1980’s. He says the decline in consumption was exacerbated by the recession and the sharp rise in unemployment in targeted areas where violent crime is most prevalent.
According to the August 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, alcohol consumption among young men in particular continues to fall.
Drinking by underage persons (ages 12–20) has declined. Current alcohol use by this age group declined from 28.8 to 26.3 percent between 2002 and 2010, while binge drinking declined from 19.3 to 17.0 percent and the rate of heavy drinking went from 6.2 to 5.1 percent.
Parker’s findings appear in the paper “Why California’s ‘Three Strikes’ Fails as Crime and Economic Policy, and What to Do,” published recently in the California Journal of Politics and Policy. The online journal publishes cutting-edge research on national, state and local government, electoral politics, and public policy formation and implementation.
California’s three strikes law imposes a minimum sentence of 25 years to life on the third felony conviction for offenders with prior serious or violent felony convictions.
Approximately 23,000 individuals have been incarcerated under three strikes. Proposition 36, on the Nov. 6 ballot, would impose the life sentence only when the new felony conviction is serious or violent.
Why not take the money spent on needlessly incarcerating nonviolent criminals and apply it to our fledging public schools, colleges and universities said Parker.
“Our infrastructure is crumbling. We’ve got three cities in bankruptcy, others are in financial trouble. Californians are now being asked to approve a tax increase to help balance the state’s budget. The question before voters in November is, “are we prepared to continue down this costly, unsustainable path or stand up to the fear-mongering and say enough.”
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