The federal three strikes law has become over time the most controversial aspect of the 1994 Crime Bill among Democrats. But what was the actual impact? What we can find in terms of data indicates that the impact of that provision was small at best.
First, to get the major question out of the way: habitual offender laws (as distinct from three strikes laws), enacted on the state level in most cases before 1994, have increased incarceration rates, and those impacts have not been racially neutral. And some 1990s-era state-based three-strikes laws (California’s in particular) have significantly increased state prison populations. This is not in doubt.
But the federal government does not generally prosecute minor crimes, so the the addition of that provision at the federal level would be expected to have very different results. And from what we can find out, it has.
One of the first things to note is that the federal government has had a requirement since 1984 that prisoners serve out 85% of their sentences. Since the main target of Three Strikes laws is offenders who qualified for early release, the impact of the law would be expected to be smaller. (Source)
The 1994-1996 Data
Data I’ve found from 1994-1996 seems to indicate that far from the tens of thousands of imprisonments many have attributed to the law, the impact per year was less than 20 or so convictions a year.
That may have been early days, but it’s hard to find data after that. I am surprised that no one has mentioned this data, which I found with less than 10 minutes of research.
I have little doubt it must have increased at some point, although it’s hard to see how we get from 20 people a year to tens of thousands of imprisonments.
A 1998 Reference
A 1998 reference shows the same number — thirty-five — as an up-to-date count (Source):
You’ll notice that a few states have their own Three Strikes Laws under which a large number of people are sentenced. These efforts were independent of the federal law, and the states where such laws had the most impact actually preceded the federal law. They weren’t so much an effect of the federal law as a model for it.
Kevin Drum has pointed out that the large effects on black incarceration attributed to the law are statistically impossible anyway, since incarceration of blacks mostly declined after the Crime Bill was passed:
See also California Three Strikes which finds that the population effects of the law were offset by decreases in crime.
The federal number of thirty-five comes from Three Strikes Laws: Five Years Later, which sources the number as obtained from the Public Affairs office of the DOJ. (Link)
Kevin Drum makes the argument that black incarceration rates were unaffected by the Crime Bill. This argument deals with both the policing funds and three strikes on the state level. (Link)
The Growth of Incarceration in the United States is a treasure trove of information on the more general issue, and the source of the chart. (Link)
A 1998 Rand Report looks at the issue. (Link)