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UCR Study Sheds Light on "Three Strikes" Law

UCR Study Sheds Light on "Three Strikes" Law

(November 16, 1999)

A study conducted by the Presley Center for Crime and Justice Studies at the University of California, Riverside shows that Californians are less likely to support the imposition of the "three strikes" law if the three felony convictions are not violent, but relate to drug or property offenses.

All felonies, regardless of type, are included as a "strike" against a defendant under the current law, approved by voters in 1994. Since that time, California residents have drawn their own conclusions about the law, and those conclusions sometimes vary by racial or ethnic background, said Robert Nash Parker, director of the Presley Center.

"First of all, 93 percent of those surveyed agree that people convicted of three violent, serious felonies deserve sentences of 25 years to life," Parker said. Support for the law diminishes, however, as the survey probes opinions about crimes against pro perty, or drug-related crimes, he said.

When asked if someone convicted of three serious drug related crimes, support for a 25-year to life sentence drops to 65%, and when asked about someone convicted of three serious property crimes, just 47% of Californians agreed that a sentence of 25 years to life is appropriate. Support for "three strikes" erodes further as the crimes are described as "less serious." For instance, just 13 percent of those surveyed supported a 25 years to life sentence for three "less serious" property crimes.

Parker, a professor of sociology, and Ph.D. candidate Valerie J. Callanan analyzed survey data of 4,245 representative California residents. Respondents were interviewed for thirty minutes on issues of crime and justice between March and September by the Social and Behavioral Research Institute at California State University, San Marcos.

Differences in support were clear among those of different ethnic backgrounds. "African Americans are less likely than other groups to favor three strikes for drug and property offenses," Parker said. For combinations of less serious and serious offenses, the differences are even more pronounced between African Americans and others. For instance, 60% of white respondents favor a sentence of 25 years to life for two serious and one less serious violent offense; while less than 40% of African Americans favor the imposition of "three strikes" in such a case.

Latinos and Asians (including Asian Americans) also are less likely to favor three strikes under those circumstances, but the differences between these groups and whites are not as pronounced as those between whites and African Americans, Parker said.

When all three offenses are less serious, the same pattern emerges, with African Americans, followed by Latinos and Asians, being less likely to support three strikes than whites.

Another part of the survey related to state spending priorities. Asked how they would allocate $100 among colleges and universities, prisons, probation departments, health care, and highways, Californians surveyed were significantly more likely to favor s pending money on health care and colleges as opposed to prisons, highways, and probation departments. Respondents decided to allocate $56 on the former, splitting the remaining money equally among the latter.

"This is an important issue for state policy, because if 'three strikes' leads to increased demand for prisons, there will be less money available for highways, health care, universities, and so on," Parker said. These results indicate that Californians w ould be unlikely to support cuts in health care and colleges to support increased prison spending."

They survey also included a series of questions about police behavior and oversight. Results showed that African Americans have less confidence in the ability of the police to protect them and are much more likely to view the police as unfair, especially as compared to white respondents. Latinos and Asians also believe police are not as likely to be fair, Parker said.

While 48% of whites believe that excessive police force is not a problem, only 20% of African Americans surveyed believe this to be the case. "Almost everyone believes that having a public review board for police conduct is a good idea," said Parker. More than 70 percent of African Americans and Latinos surveyed said it is "very important," as compared with about 60 percent for whites and Asians.

Next week, Parker will present the survey data to about 5,000 scholars, scientists and criminal justice experts who will attend the American Society of Criminology's annual meeting in Toronto.

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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