HEADLINE: Supreme Court Upholds Long Sentences Under Three-Strikes Laws for Repeat Criminals


DATE: March 6, 2003
by David Kravets

The Supreme Court is upholding California's three-strikes sentencing law, ruling 5-4 that terms of up to life in prison are not too harsh for repeat criminals.

The court upheld a 50-to-life term for a man who stole a handful of videotapes from Kmart and 25-to-life term for a thief who shoplifted clubs from a golf course. Both men were sentenced under California's toughest-in-the-nation law for repeat criminals.

Hours after the court said Wednesday that the 1994 law does not necessarily lead to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment, family members of those serving three-strikes sentences said they would ask voters to amend the law to forbid lengthy terms for minor offenses.

"We urge all Californians who are offended by today's decision to join this fight and help us put reform on the ballot next year," said Geri Silva, executive director of Families to Amend California's Three Strikes. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, however, praised the decision.

"The court's three-strikes ruling affirms California's authority to enact strong public safety laws to protect our residents from repeat offenders," Lockyer said.

Gov. Gray Davis, in a weekly interview on Los Angeles' KNX Radio Wednesday, also lauded the decision. "As you know, people who are guilty of three strikes are generally guilty of many more crimes and it has led to a great increase in public safety over the past decade. I am pleased that the United States Supreme Court upheld the law," Davis said.

The court's decision, while addressing only California's law, is expected to shield similar, but less harsh repeat-offender laws on the books in 25 states. The laws are intended to shut the revolving prison door for career criminals and demand lengthy terms for third-time offenses.

In one case decided Wednesday, Gary Albert Ewing had prior felony convictions for burglary when a clerk at an El Segundo golf shop noticed him trying to make off with golf clubs stuffed down one pant leg. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. There is no possibility of parole before 25 years.

"Ewing's sentence is justified by the state's public-safety interest in incapacitating and deterring recidivist felons, and amply supported by his own long, serious criminal record," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the main opinion in that case.

Erwin Chemerinsky, the attorney who defended Leandro Andrade, the San Bernardino videotape thief sentenced to 50 years for stealing $152 worth of videotapes from Kmart, was alarmed by the decision.

"The Supreme Court has said for a century that grossly disproportionate penalties violate the Constitution. If any penalty is disproportionate, it is 50 years with no possibility of parole for shoplifting $152," Chemerinsky said.

In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the golf club case is a rare example of a sentence that is so out of proportion to the crime that it is unconstitutional.

Outside California, a 25-year prison term is more the norm for someone convicted of first-degree murder, not shoplifting, Breyer wrote.

"Ewing's sentence is, at a minimum, two to three times the length of sentences that other jurisdictions would impose in similar circumstances," he wrote.

At least 7,000 people have been sentenced under the California law, including more than 300 such as Ewing and Leandro Andrade, the men at the heart of Wednesday's cases. Both received long sentences when the courts treated a relatively minor crime as a third-strike felony.

California voters and lawmakers approved the three-strikes law in 1994, largely in response to the kidnapping and killing of schoolgirl Polly Klaas by a paroled repeat criminal.

The Supreme Court's decision was an endorsement of what has evolved into a sacrosanct law in California. Tinkering with the three-strikes law is a taboo topic among state lawmakers who are focused on digging themselves out of a projected $35 billion budget deficit. As one California legislator put it, it's easier for lawmakers to cut social programs and raise taxes than consider recasting the nation's toughest sentencing law to reduce prison costs.

"Being tough on crime is like being tough on communism," said Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, an ardent foe of the three-strikes law. "Everybody is afraid that, at some future election, it may come back to haunt them that they were soft."

Every effort to limit California's three-strikes law this legislative season or in the past -- for humanitarian or prison cost-cutting reasons -- has failed or died from a threatened gubernatorial veto. The California Supreme Court has rejected hearing any challenge that three-strikes is cruel and unusual punishment.

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision noted the popularity of three-strikes laws and the public fears about violent crime that led to them. State legislatures should have leeway to keep career criminals away from the public, O'Connor wrote.

The cases are Ewing v. California, 01-6978, and Lockyer v. Andrade, 01-1127.

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