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3-Strikes Law Overstated, Study Says

Report: Two professors contend there is no evidence it reduces crime rate among repeat offenders as the attorney general has asserted.

October 11, 1998|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren has overstated the impact of California's "Three Strikes and You're Out" law in reducing crime, according to a study by two law professors scheduled to be published in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review in November.

The study contends that there is no proof that the law, which enhances sentences for repeat offenders, has led to a sharp reduction in crime as Lungren has repeatedly asserted.

The study also contends that Lungren's office has ignored other factors that may have contributed to the decline in California's crime rate, and assembled data in a manner that makes three strikes appear to be a more potent weapon than it has been.

A Lungren spokesman took issue with the study, while his opponent in the gubernatorial race, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, declined to comment. Since Davis also is a strong supporter of three strikes, the study may not have any sharp effect on the Nov. 3 election.

Professors Linda S. Beres of Loyola Law School and Thomas D. Griffith of USC Law School said their study is a response to a report Lungren's office issued in March on the effect of the 1994 three-strikes law.

The Lungren report said the statute was largely responsible for "the largest overall drop in crime over any four-year period in [California] history." Lungren also has taken that position during his gubernatorial campaign.

Passed partly in reaction to the 1993 murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a repeat offender, three strikes doubled the normal sentence for a second felony conviction and imposed a minimum 25-year sentence for third felonies--whether violent or nonviolent--if the earlier convictions were for violent or serious crimes.

"The impact of three strikes on the crime rate has been swift and dramatic," the Lungren report concluded. "The crime rate has dropped more than 30% since its enactment."

The report acknowledged that "the entire drop in crime may not be attributed solely to three strikes," noting that factors such as community-oriented policing also must be considered.

Moreover, the Lungren report asserted that the decline could not be attributed to alternative explanations such as an improved California economy.

Beres and Griffith take issue with that analysis.

Their study concludes that "there is no evidence that three strikes played an important role in the drop in the crime rate" between 1994 and 1996. (The data for 1997 were incomplete, something the Lungren report acknowledges in a footnote, and the professors did not include that year).

The professors base their assessment on several factors, including the way in which the attorney general's office assembled its data.

Lungren's report states that during the four years before the enactment of three strikes--1990 to 1993--the overall California Crime Index dropped only 2.4%, compared to a drop of 30.8% from 1994 to 1997. Moreover, the report said the difference in violent crime was even sharper, increasing by 7.3% from 1990 to 1993, but dropping 26.9% from 1994 to 1997.

However, the professors state, the drop in crime in California began in 1993, one year before three strikes was adopted.

The crime index figures show that violent crime rose markedly in 1989 and 1990 and then by smaller numbers in 1991 and 1992. Then, in 1993, the violent crime rate dropped 4.1%.

Overall, the crime rate dropped 3.5% in 1993. But the study states that the fact that crime began to drop before three strikes was not apparent in Lungren's report because 1993 figures have been lumped with those from 1990 to 1992 when the violent crime rate rose.

In addition, the professors say that Lungren dismissed other possible factors for declining crime, including declining unemployment rates. The study points out that for six of the seven years between 1989 and 1996 the unemployment and violent crime rates moved in the same direction. The Lungren report, however, says the effect from an improving economy was "minimal compared to changes in criminal law and law enforcement."

On Friday, Lungren's spokesman Rob Stutzman reiterated his boss' long-held position that "you can't tie crime to economics. He believes crime is based on people making independent decisions."

The Beres-Griffith study also maintains that any impact that the statute had from 1994 to 1996 by keeping repeat criminals in jail longer was minimal because most offenders imprisoned under three strikes would have been incarcerated into 1997 even if the law had never been enacted.

Larry G. Brown, executive director of the California District Attorneys Assn., sharply disagreed with that conclusion. Brown said the vast bulk of cases under the law have been people who got enhanced sentences for a second strike and had to serve 80% of the sentence, rather than being eligible for parole after half the term was served. Consequently, he maintained that many people sentenced as second-strike offenders in 1994 and 1995 would have gotten out by the end of 1996 if not for the new law.

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