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Dangerousness and Incapacitation: A Predictive Evaluation of Sentencing Policy Reform in California

NCJ Number
Date Published
September 2000
323 pages
This predictive evaluation of sentencing policy reform in California concludes that the State's "Three Strikes" law will not be effective in incapacitating dangerous offenders, and it recommends alternatives to guide policymakers in constructing and implementing sentencing policies that will effectively target and incapacitate dangerous offenders.
Sentencing policies that claim to enhance public safety by selectively incapacitating dangerous offenders must make clear the characteristics of a dangerous offender and must ensure that these dangerous offenders are actually the ones targeted for selective incapacitation. In discussing the history of efforts to predict "dangerousness," this study notes the limited success of these endeavors. Sentencing innovations such as Three Strikes and Truth in Sentencing aim to select the most dangerous offenders for lengthy incarceration, thereby isolating them from society; however, due to structural constraints (the availability of prison space), the net effect of these laws may be a reduction in the aggregate level of dangerous offenders in the prison population, as more dangerous offenders who are not subject to mandatory minimum sentences are released to make room for "Three Strikes" and other mandatorily sentenced offenders. In the current analysis, "dangerousness" is used as an evaluative construct to estimate the level of dangerousness in correctional populations. The modeling strategy used consists of measuring certain characteristics of individuals known to correlate with dangerousness. The level of dangerousness in a population is defined as the mean level of dangerousness in individuals that comprise the population. The dangerousness construct as measured in individuals takes the form of an additive index that consists of the following variables: age, gender, number of prior felony convictions, the presence or absence of violent prior felony convictions, and current conviction offense. This study conducted a simulation analysis to reproduce the compositional dynamics of the California criminal justice system during the period 1979-98, so as to determine whether the system had been successful in incapacitating dangerous offenders. The findings showed that the dangerousness of incarcerated populations in California had decreased rather than increased in the last two decades, while the dangerousness of noncustodial populations had either remained relatively constant (parole) or increased dramatically (probation). The principal trends were the aging of incarcerated populations and the increased influx of drug offenders into the system. Three alternate scenarios are presented to explore various ways to achieve greater average dangerousness in the incarcerated population, thus increasing the incapacitation of dangerous offenders. The first two of the scenarios accept the fact of an aging prison population and examine ways to focus the Three Strikes law more narrowly on particular types of offenders (those who have shown a capacity for violence either in the past or in the current offense). The third alternative would implement a program of geriatric release in California prisons. 65 figures, 5 tables, and 403 references

Date Published: September 1, 2000