Punishment and Democracy: Three Strikes and You're out in California

Punishment and Democracy: Three Strikes and You're out in California

Punishment and Democracy: Three Strikes and You're out in California

Punishment and Democracy: Three Strikes and You're out in California


"Getting tough on crime" has been one of the favorite rallying cries of American politicians in the last two decades, and "getting tough" on repeat offenders has been particularly popular. "Three strikes and you're out" laws, which effectively impose a 25-years-to-life sentence at the moment of a third felony conviction, have been passed in 26 states. California's version of the "three strikes" law, enacted in 1994, was broader and more severe than measures considered or passed in any other state. Punishment and Democracy is the first examination of the actual impact this law has had. Franklin Zimring, Sam Kamin, and Gordon Hawkins look at the origins of the law in California, compare it to other crackdown laws, and analyze the data collected on crime rates in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco in the year before and the two years after the law went into effect. They show that the "three strikes" law was a significant development in criminal justice policy making, not only at the state level, but also at the national level. They conclude with an examination of the trend toward populist initiatives driving penal policy. The importance of the subject and the stature of the authors make this book required reading for policy analysts, criminal justice scholars, elected officials, and indeed any American seeking to know more about "get-tough" criminal sentencing.


The “Three strikes and you're out” legislation adopted in California in 1994, was, at the same time, typical of recent American penal policy and decidedly unique. It is typical because of its orientation (long and mandatory terms of imprisonment), its devotion to symbolic gestures and slogans, and its willingness to displace discretion with binding general commitments to particular punishments. The California version was only 1 of 26 laws with that label passed in a three-year period during the 1990s, and the Three Strikes approach was only 1 of many punitive reforms of the 1990s.

What sets California's law apart from the other Three Strikes laws and every other penal law innovation of recent times is the extremity of its terms and the revolutionary nature of its ambitions. This statute was drafted by outsiders to have the maximum possible impact on criminal punishments. Whereas most penal laws are designed to deliver less drastic changes than they advertise—to bark louder than they bite—the California statute was designed to operate even more broadly than its specialized title would suggest. It was a law designed to bite louder than it barked.

The origin and impact of this legislation would have been an important subject no matter which state had adopted it, but the setting for the new law provided an even more compelling case for a major study. The state of California is one of the largest criminal justice systems in the free world. Its prisons and jails held almost a quarter of a million inmates before the new law took effect. The California prison system had grown more than fivefold in the 14 years prior to Three Strikes and already was larger than any prison system in the Western world. This was not only an extreme experiment but also one implemented in a very large and greatly expanded system.

This book reports our study of the origins, the impacts, and the implications of California's singular experiment in populist penal reform. Our coverage is divided into four segments: The first part of the book addresses the origin of the California law and the scale of its . . .

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