Three Reasons Why Three-Strikes Is Bad Policy

Over the Easter break, the ACT Party announced its new proposal to extend the existing “Three Strikes” policy to burglary offences.

If enacted, this policy would see people who are convicted for burglary for the third time spending three years in prison without parole. The ACT Party was responsible for the introduction of Three-Strikes law for violence offences in 2010.

It is important to point out that ACT has relied on misinterpreted evidence in support of their policy.

They have claimed that Britain’s introduction of the three-strikes policy in 1999 is responsible for the burglary rate declining by 35%. Criminologists and criminal justice professionals have responded to these claims,noting that while this drop has occurred, it has happened across a number of different offences for which there is no three strikes provision. The UK police established an initiative designed to focus on communities with at least twice the average burglary rate, and undertaking activities such as ‘target hardening’ of vulnerable premises, improved street lighting, high-visibility policing, publicity campaigns and awareness raising, youth diversion initiatives and security patrols.

Further, this reduction in the burglary rate is not confined to the United Kingdom, it is a common theme throughout the western world. Reasons include more affordable security technology, use of CCTV,  the reduced value of household appliances, and the move toward a cashless society.

In short: correlation is not the same as causation.

JustSpeak has responded to this latest policy proposal via conventional press release channels but we also thought it would be good to note – three reasons why this policy is a bad idea.


1.  Deterrence doesn’t work

The proposal is based on the idea that harsher penalties will act as a deterrent. Deterrence does not work to prevent crime.

Most crimes are not carried out on a cost-benefit basis. This policy supposes that people who commit crimes are acting on a rational economic model and that the more severe the penalty, the higher the costs. This is not supported by evidence. Research indicates that increases in the severity of punishment do not produce a corresponding increase in the general deterrent effect (deterring society in general). Furthermore, at an individual level, research shows that imprisonment has, at best, no effect on the rate of reoffending and is often criminogenic, resulting in a greater rate of recidivism by imprisoned offenders compared with offenders who received a different sentencing outcome.

If deterrence worked, the use of the death penalty would reduce crime rates. Without even addressing the moral and social arguments against the death penalty, it is not even effective in reducing crime. In the USA, the murder rate in those states with the death penalty has been consistently higher than those who do not have it, for at least twenty years.

It’s is a particularly bad idea to apply this policy to young people. The science of brain development tells us that young people do not have the same ability as adults to be aware of the consequences of their actions. This means a deterrence-based criminal justice system is likely to be especially ineffective in reducing offending by young people.

Punishment based on deterrence is a disproven, 20th Century idea.  The policy will fail at a practical level by ignoring the realities of crime.

2. Increasing our prison population is expensive and ineffective

The proposal will see an increase in the number of people New Zealand puts in prison. This would be an expensive and ineffective approach to the problem of burglaries.

New Zealand already has an imprisonment rate it should be ashamed of. In September 2013 our rate was 189 people in prison for every 100,000 people, or about 8,500 people at the time. Our rate is one of the highest in the OECD.

It’s not a cheap solution. Treasury data from 2009  puts the cost of keeping someone locked up at $90,000 per person, per year.

Locking someone away from the community can only ever temporarily address the problem and will not make our society safer in the long run.

There are smarter and more effective uses of public money, including further investment in restorative justice practices, and further research into the best ways of addressing the socioeconomic inequalities that are often underlying crimes against property.


3. It is political scaremongering – ‘Tough on Crime’ is based on populism, not principles

The proposal is based on political populism, a culture of fear, and erroneous evidence. ACT is trying to appeal to a knee-jerk desire among some voters for punishment based on revenge.

This is a cheap and hypocritical attempt to win votes in an election year. Their proposal is not in line with their political ideology: it is calling for a bigger, more expensive and less effective  government intervention.  In doing so, the party appears desperate to remain politically relevant.

We are pleased to see others are also pointing out the flaws in this justice policy, including Rethinking Crime and Punishment’s Kim Workman, this editorial in the Herald, and this group of Waikato lawyers.

We note that at this stage, even ACT’s likely coalition partners are not rushing out to support them on this. The Prime Minister has sidestepped questions about the policy, stopping short of rejecting it. National Party’s Deputy Leader, Bill English, has previously referred to prisons as a “moral and fiscal failure”, and the National Party has made a number of solid investments in alternative approaches to addressing crime.

This is promising. We want to encourage more of this, and underscore the importance of all political parties resisting the appeal of populist justice policies in the lead up to this year’s election.

Effective criminal justice policies should be based on prevention, rather than punishment.