California’s shutout ends

Crime rate increases for the first time since Three Strikes law passed

Secretary of State Bill Jones

Secretary of State Bill Jones

The last six years of the ’90s were good to the tough-on-crime crowd. As crime rates dropped, each year improving on the last, law-and-order types pointed to one symbol as their savior: the Three Strikes and You’re Out law passed by voters in 1994.

Three Strikes, you’ll remember, dictates that any person committing their third felony—whether violent or non-violent—be sentenced to life imprisonment. Controversy surrounded the law when it was first introduced by then-Assemblyman Bill Jones, now California’s secretary of state, and it continues today.

Indeed, many still maintain that voters were confused, believing they were approving a measure that would only lock up violent repeat offenders. Instead, so-called “third strikes” have included drug offenses and bicycle thefts, as well as crimes against persons.

Still, it’s got to be hard to argue with statistics that show the homicide rate dropping from more than 4,000 in 1993—the pre-Three Strikes era—to some 2,000 in 1999, right? And when the number of rapes decreased by 13.8 percent from 1994–1999, you can’t blame Three Strikes proponents for crowing a bit.

So you’ve got to wonder what happened in the first six months of 2000, when homicides increased by 4.7 percent and rapes by 9.7 percent. State criminologists predict the upcoming year-end report will show similar increases when released this summer.

So, were Three Strikes believers all wet? Could there be other, more complex reasons for the previous decreases? Could these early figures of rising crime signal the beginning of another crime wave, the likes of which we haven’t seen in nearly a decade? Or was it simply inevitable that crime would go back up after years of decline, sentencing policies aside?

For California, where criminal sentencing is as much about politics as law enforcement, the answer seems to depend on who you talk to.

“We’re not expecting those double-digit drops [in crime] we’ve seen in the past,” said Mike Van Winkle, a spokesman for Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s crime statistics division, “but a small increase doesn’t automatically signal an upturn. Violent crime is still half of what it once was in 1993.”

So what is responsible for the increase and what does it mean in terms of the previous successes attributed to Three Strikes?

One explanation given by Lockyer spokesman Nathan Barankin says, quite simply, that crime was bound to rise. He cites a recent lecture given by renowned criminologist, James Q. Wilson, two months prior to the release of the 2000 statistics.

“After six or seven straight years of crime rate decreases, he said the only thing he knew for sure was that crime will go up again,” Barankin said. “And then it will go back down. Why? Because it has done so in the past.”

Barankin also noted that in 2000, the so-called “echo-boom”—males between the ages of 18–30, the group said to commit the majority of violent crimes—began to climb for the first time in many years.

Still, Barankin in no way believes that a six-month or even one-year increase is evidence that Three Strikes was not instrumental in reducing crime rates over the last six years.

But here’s the twist: According to the California Department of Corrections, only 25.5 percent of felonies in 1996 that triggered a third strike were crimes against people—in other words, violent crimes. Another 34.2 percent were property crimes and another 21.9 percent were drug offenses, with the rest attributed to lesser crimes.

“So we’re not really locking up the criminals the public thought they would when they passed this law,” asserted Julie Stewart, president of the national nonprofit Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “Instead, they’re wasting prison beds on burglars and drug users.”

Families Against Mandatory Minimums tracks and compares crime rates and sentencing policies in each state. Stewart further asserted that all states, regardless of whether they have Three Strikes legislation or not, have posted steady declines in crime since 1996. She and others maintain that the numbers themselves are an indictment of a policy that was “oversold” to California voters.

“If the idea is that Three Strikes is a deterrent,” said Marc Mauer from The Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit advocating the use of sentencing alternatives, “then you should see a bigger decline in crime among offenders facing a third strike than you do in first-time offenders. What we’re finding is that there’s virtually no bigger reduction in those crimes than in first-time offenses. That suggests that the decline in crime wasn’t a result of Three Strikes, but from other factors.”

For example, California was in the grips of a recession in 1993, but by 1995 the state began to recover and has since enjoyed booming economic growth and record budget surpluses.

“Bill Jones and [former Attorney General] Dan Lungren will trot out charts showing crime going down the day after this law went into effect,” Mauer said. “But what they don’t show is that crime had begun going down two years before Three Strikes. And the trends in California are very similar to [those] nationally.”

Are critics, like some law-and-order types suggest, simply throwing stones because they would rather see convicted rapists in touchy-feely support groups instead of serving stiff sentences?

“Prisons exist for the purpose of protecting us from truly dangerous people,” Mauer said. “No one has any quarrel with that. Have there been serious felons who have gone to prison because of Three Strikes? Of course. But California had sentencing policies in place to deal with those people before Three Strikes. But how many voters thought they’d be spending a half-million dollars to lock up a bike thief?”

Proponents are correct, however, in noting that crime rates dropped most dramatically during the first six years of Three Strikes, especially in the areas of violent crime. They don’t, however, offer hard evidence to support their theory that—as Jones likes to tout—California had 1.5 million fewer crimes between 1994–1999. Those numbers, they concede, are more supposition than fact, based upon “crimes that would have been committed” if the trends seen in 1993 had continued unabated.

Secretary of State Bill Jones speaks with the fervor of a true believer. He gives little credence to those who would doubt the efficacy of the law, continuously pointing to the disparity between the drops in California and the rest of the nation. To Stewart’s and Mauer’s interpretation of the numbers, Jones said, quite simply, “That’s ridiculous.”

“Californians are twice as safe as the rest of the nation,” he said. “The same people who are [finger-pointing] are the same ones who have been against this since the day I passed it.”

And while he said Three Strikes couldn’t take full credit for the reduction, Jones believes it is the “single biggest, most successful” tool that district attorneys have in their crime-fighting arsenal.

When interpreting the recently released data for 2000, Jones and others continue to point to the overall reduction in crime in California from 1994–1999, 41.1 percent, comparing that to the overall reduction in the other 49 states, 19.6 percent.

But breakout numbers for reduction in violent crimes in other states for the same period totaled 27.1 percent. Three Strikes proponents also remained focused on the overall increase for the first six months of 2000—the relatively small 1.3 percent—rather than the more significant jump in homicides and rape—4.7 percent and 9.7 percent, respectively.

Those numbers, even if they bear out for the year, only convince Jones that California needs to “stay the course.”

“I’d still say that one year of increases does not equate to six years of declines,” Jones said. “We run the risk of increasing crime in California when we cloud the message of deterrence that is being so clearly understood by the criminal element over the last six years. The reason Three Strikes has worked is the message is clear: you clean up, go to jail, or leave the state. We can’t afford to change our policy in midstream, just because we’ve seen a slight increase.”

But even Lockyer said recently that he was disturbed by the escalation in rapes statewide—going from a decrease of 13.8 percent from 1994–1999, to an increase of 9.7 percent in 2000. Citing FBI statistics that show sex offenders commit an average of seven to eight rapes during their criminal lifetimes, Barankin said more needs to be done to catch sexual predators after their first offense.

Shireen Miles, executive director of Women Escaping a Violent Environment (WEAVE) isn’t prepared to say the law doesn’t work, but she will tell you that her agency hasn’t seen a decline in the number of women who seek assistance after being raped in the seven years since Three Strikes was implemented.

“In Sacramento County, we respond to about 400 [cases] per year—more than one per day—and that hasn’t changed,” Miles said. “One reason we’re not shocked is that so many sexual assaults are [perpetrated] by acquaintances or by those who have no criminal record. So Three Strikes is valuable in that it has the potential to put away some of the most dangerous repeat offenders, but we’ve never deluded ourselves into believing that Three Strikes will protect women.”