Three-Strikes Law and Its Effectiveness in the US


The three-strikes law is a legislation that requires an individual who has been convicted of a severe felony for the third time to serve a mandatory life sentence. The law aims to incapacitate habitual criminals through harsher sentences. The legislation is considered controversial because of the debate regarding its fairness and effectiveness. A section of the group claims that the law is ineffective while the other section argues that it is effective. More than 50 percent of the states in the US have an active variation of the legislation. The three-strikes law is fair and effective in deterring crime because it reduces transgressions in communities, incapacitates felons, and advocates for harsher sentences.

Reduces Crime in Communities

The three-strikes law lowers the rate of crime in communities because criminals are aware of the consequences of their actions. The risk of committing a felony is not worth a life sentence in prison. The risk of serving a life sentence discourages them from committing a crime. Research has shown that in the state of California, the legislation has reduced crime by 50 percent since the enactment of the law in 1994 (Welsh & Harris, 2016). A study conducted by the George Mason University concluded that the legislation deterred habitual criminals from committing crimes. Another study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that the law discourages crime because many individuals are afraid of a life prison sentence (Welsh & Harris, 2016). The study also showed that even though the legislation deters crime, it could push criminals to commit more serious felonies.

Incapacitation of Felons

In the United States, the rate of recidivism is approximately 45%. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has noted that 77% of all inmates are re-arrested within five years after serving their sentences (Welsh & Harris, 2016). The majority of these criminals are violent and present a security risk to communities. The three-strikes law aims to keep them in prison to enhance the safety of citizens (Kelly, 2015). Citizens are protected from serious crimes by increasing the prison sentences of repeated offenders. In that regard, habitual criminals are removed from communities for extended periods during which the safety of citizens is enhanced as the rate of crime decreases (Kelly, 2015). In Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11 (2003), the Court gave Ewing a 25-year sentence for non-violent theft (Neubauer & Fradella, 2017). The sentence was based on the fact that Ewing had been convicted of serious felonies in the past, and so, he would be tried under the three strikes law if he was found guilty of committing another serious crime.

Harsher Prison Sentences

The main aspect of the three-strikes law that deters crime is the harsh sentences that habitual offenders get after a third-time conviction. The state of California has the most stringent law. According to the legislation, a felon found guilty of the third strike is given a harsher sentence than the one given during the first conviction (Neubauer & Fradella, 2017). Thousands of felons have been convicted under the law since its enactment (Neubauer & Fradella, 2017). For instance, in 2009, Leandro Andrade was given a life sentence after attempting to steal videotapes from K-Mart stores in California (Neubauer & Fradella, 2017). He was convicted under the state’s three-strikes law, and since he had previous felony charges connected with burglary and drug-dealing, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison. The ruling was criticized as harsh and cruel. The defendant appealed the sentence before the United States Supreme Court. However, the Court maintained that the verdict was fair and was in no way a violation of the Eighth Amendment. In Lockyer v. Andrade (2003), the Supreme Court made a ruling that validated the constitutionality of the three-strikes law (Welsh & Harris, 2016).


The three-strikes law is controversial legislation because of a lack of consensus regarding its fairness and deterrent effect. At least 28 states have enacted a variation of the legislation into law. The statutes of the law are tough and convictions have been challenged on the grounds of violating the Eighth Amendment. The law is effective but it could push criminals to commit more serious felonies. The three-strikes law is fair and an effective deterrent against crime because it discourages habitual offenders from committing a crime, incapacitates felons by removing them from society for long periods, and discourages crime because of harsh prison sentences.


Kelly, W. R. (2015). Criminal justice system at the crossroads: Transforming crime and punishment. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Neubauer, D. W., & Fradella, H. F. (2017). America’s courts and the criminal justice system (13th ed.). New York, NY: Cengage.

Welsh, W. N., & Harris, P. W. (2016).Criminal justice policy and planning: Planned change (5th ed.). New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

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LawBirdie. (2023) 'Three-Strikes Law and Its Effectiveness in the US'. 23 March.


LawBirdie. 2023. "Three-Strikes Law and Its Effectiveness in the US." March 23, 2023.

1. LawBirdie. "Three-Strikes Law and Its Effectiveness in the US." March 23, 2023.


LawBirdie. "Three-Strikes Law and Its Effectiveness in the US." March 23, 2023.