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Costs Exceed Benefits Of Three-Strikes Law


February 04, 2008

The Connecticut General Assembly should be congratulated for rejecting a proposal to create a three-strikes law in the state. With more than a decade to evaluate the effectiveness of the three-strikes laws, we know they are largely symbolic, tend to over-emphasize nonviolent offenders, the poor and minorities, and that the costs may exceed the public safety benefits.

Violent and persistent offenders must be incarcerated for long periods of crime. The public demands this.

However, the community must be careful when weighing the financial and social costs versus the benefits of such proposals.

As a category of sentencing policy, three-strikes laws are of dubious merit. Evaluations — including one conducted by the National Institute of Justice — of the California and Florida three-strikes laws have found “no clear consensus on the “public safety impact” and “no impact,” respectively.

Researchers have not been able to separate the amount of the decrease in crime associated with the existence of a three-strikes law from the more general decline in crime that has occurred throughout the United States during the past decade. Although there is some evidence that crime is deterred among some “second strikers,” the deterrent effect is not uniformly felt.

Higher Costs

An important consideration is that three-strikes laws are associated with increased costs related to increased prison populations, including health care costs and capital spending. It is estimated that the costs associated with incarcerating older individuals is between two and three times the cost of incarcerating a person below the age of 50.

Take California, where it is estimated that its three-strikes law will cost $5.5 billion over a 20-year period. The cost of implementation is expected to rise at least until 2019 when the first wave of third-strikers is released. At that time, other costs, such as parole supervisions, will be incurred.

The additional cost of parole supervision for California inmates is estimated at about $20 million per year.

The recent Democratic proposal to strengthen the so-called “second-strike” elements of Connecticut’s current law makes more sense than a three-strikes law. A similar or greater public safety impact could be achieved by using the state’s existing persistent offender laws more effectively. Under these laws, violent and nonviolent persistent offenders are liable for significant prison terms that remove them from society for many years and, in some cases, for most of their lives.

One aspect of the law is the increased time served by so-called “first strikers” before becoming eligible for parole, from 21 months to 25 months, at a cost of $60,000 per inmate. As “third-strikers” move toward the end of their sentences, additional workload costs are anticipated to accommodate these parole requests. The crime drop of the 1990s may have temporarily lowered the costs of these laws, and there is reason to believe the costs will rise dramatically.

When lawmakers consider adopting a three-strikes law, they should evaluate whether other forms of sentencing frameworks and correctional and operational polices can achieve the same level of benefit with lower costs and less impact on vulnerable populations most likely to suffer in the operation of large impersonal bureaucracies.

Those just released from prison face a significant challenge. Recidivism is high because opportunities to prosper do not exist in many neighborhoods in the state. Money spent housing aged criminals would be better spent on finding ways to help reintegrate ex-convicts into the community, to sustain their lives and health, and to find them a place in the community.

The capital spending proposed to implement the now failed three-strikes proposal, which will be debated in the regular session of the legislature, should be used to create economic opportunity in poor communities.

Albert DiChiara, PhD, is director of criminal justice at the University of Hartford.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
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