Race and Inequality

Examining Racial and Ethnic Disparities in California’s Three Strikes Law

Elsa Chen
Associate Professor of Political Science, Santa Clara University

Key Findings

  • Disparities in sentencing were found to exist across ethnicities, with African American and American Indian populations receiving the greatest frequency of third-strike sentences.
  • Latino populations experienced racially biased sentencing in their favor, resulting in fewer third-strike sentences than other ethnicities.
  • Sentencing disparities were generally greater for property and drug offenses than for violent crimes.


In the article, “The Liberation Hypothesis and Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Application of California’s Three Strikes Law,” Chen examined the extent to which racial and ethnic discrepancies exist in the implementation of California’s “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law. The study utilized 171,000 individual data records on inmates in the California prison system in September 2006, and examined the extent to which racial biases were present in the sentencing of African-American, American Indian, Latino, and Caucasian offenders. The author found that racial disparities in sentencing did exist when studied across ethnicities and that disparities were greater for property and drug offenses than for violent crimes. African-American offenders were significantly more likely than whites and Latinos to receive third-strike sentences, regardless of the nature of their offense. The same is true for American Indians. Latino offenders were significantly less likely than African Americans to receive third-strike sentences. The study observed that these patterns may indicate leniency in the sentencing of Latinos and foreign-born defendants. Or that these groups are deported either before or after they are convicted, leaving fewer repeat offenders in the prison population. The author suggested that it is necessary to look beyond a black-and-white typology when studying the role of race and ethnicity in the justice system. To the extent that disparities in sentencing outcomes result from decisions made by participants and authorities in the criminal justice system, it may be possible to mitigate or prevent discriminatory applications of the law.

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