Criminal Justice Reform

The Implementation of Three Strikes

Elsa Chen
Associate Professor of Political Science, Santa Clara University

Key Findings

  • Eligible felons are more likely to receive Three Strikes sentences in counties with larger Latino populations.
  • Higher unemployment rates are associated with more stringent application of the Three Strikes law.
  • Discretion is widely exercised by elected prosecutors and judges in the administration of Three Strikes.


Using a hierarchical logistic model, the authors analyzed data on Three Strikes-eligible offenders in California and the counties where they were sentenced. The analysis found that discretion functions as a “safety valve”, preserving some sentencing proportionality, but also allows political concerns to influence sentencing decisions. The study found that a more conservative political environment was strongly associated with stricter applications of the law. Prosecutorial and judicial discretion benefits offenders unequally. Though the size of the black population had no significant effect, black offenders were more likely to receive Three Strikes sentences, while younger offenders were less likely to receive such sentences.

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