UF study shows Florida's three-strikes law fails to curb crime

January 10, 2006

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida’s three-strikes law is a swing and a miss as a crime-fighting tool, finds a new University of Florida study about the legislation that imposes increasingly stiff mandatory jail terms for gun-wielding criminals.

Instead, the dip in state crime is more likely attributable to a national decline in crime that began before the law went into effect, said UF criminologist Alex Piquero.

“Those who support the law credit it with a dramatic reduction in crime,” said Piquero, whose research appears in the October issue of Criminology and Public Policy. “But our study shows that crime was already dropping in Florida, as it was in all states, before the law was passed.”

An analysis of Florida’s Index Crime statistics shows there was a greater drop in crime before the law went into effect. Between 1994 and 1998, the years before the 10-20-Life statute was passed, crime fell by 16 percent, compared with a 13 percent decline between 2000 and 2004, immediately after the law went into effect, he said.

Other factors to which researchers attribute the downturn in U.S. crime rates, such as the hiring of more police officers, also might explain Florida’s crime drop, he said.

From highway billboards to a state government Web page, a high-profile campaign praises Florida’s 10-20-Life law, which authorizes mandatory sentences for pulling a gun during a crime, Piquero said.

The 10-20-Life law, which went into effect in July 1999, requires that a felon who used a gun to commit a crime, such as armed robbery, serve at least 10 years in prison. Firing a gun increases the penalty to a 20-year prison term and shooting a person bumps it to 25 years to life. In addition, any felon who even possessed a gun, regardless of whether it was used during a crime, must serve a three-year prison term, he said.

Parallel to those efforts, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, working with local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, created anti-crime strategies such as Operation T.H.U.G.S. (Taking Hoodlums Using Guns Seriously), which targets felons who have existing violent-crime warrants and a history of violence, Piquero said. In addition, he said, the governor’s office implemented a $2.7 million public service announcement campaign to warn would-be criminals of the law’s severe penalties: “Use a gun and you’re done.”

According to the Florida Department of Corrections Web site, the results under the 10-20-Life law are “impressive” and “punishing criminals who use guns is making our state safer.”

“Tough-on-crime initiatives have successfully reversed the lenient and disastrous criminal-justice policies of the early 1990s in Florida that caused so much suffering,” the Web site states.

“Anytime I see a state claim that its policy is the direct creator of a drop in crime, I’m a little bit hesitant because there are things that occur around the exact same time that could cause the crime drop,” he said.

Between 1996 and 2000, for example, sworn police personnel increased by 6 percent in Florida, which was part of a national trend, increasing by 7 percent for the United States as a whole, he said.

Although no other study has examined Florida’s 10-20-Life law, research on three-strike policies in other states, such as Washington and California, show they have not been very effective, Piquero said.

“And they actually end up being more expensive because you’re putting offenders in incarcerated facilities for very long periods of time, which costs millions of dollars,” he said.

Jeffrey Fagan, a law and public health professor at Columbia University, said Piquero’s research shows the importance of careful and impartial analyses to evaluate bold claims of success in crime control initiatives.

“Crime rises and falls for complex reasons, and this work once again shows that crime control initiatives such as Florida’s three-strikes laws offer simple solutions that are no match for the web of large social and economic forces that drive crime,” he said. “Piquero joins a growing roster of criminologists and public policy analysts who have failed to find meaningful impacts of such laws on crime rates.”