United for No Injustice, Oppression or Neglect

Three Strikes - Articles


Wednesday, March 5, 2003 

Supreme Court Upholds 'Three-Strikes' Law

By James Vicini 

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld on Wednesday California's "three-strikes" law which gives up to life in prison for repeat offenders even if their last crime was minor theft like stealing golf clubs. 

By a 5-4 vote, the high court ruled the law does not violate the constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual" punishment. 

In one case, the high court said it was constitutional for Gary Ewing to be sentenced to 25 years to life even though his last crime was stealing three golf clubs worth about $1,200. 

In the other case, the justices by a 5-4 vote said a U.S. appeals court was wrong in overturning the sentence of two consecutive terms of 25 years to life for Leandro Andrade, who stole nine videotapes worth $153. 

Ewing and Andrade had been convicted of a number of prior felonies. They argued the law unconstitutionally resulted in an unduly harsh sentence "grossly disproportionate" to the crime. 

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the majority opinion that in the Ewing case the three-strikes laws caused a dramatic change in criminal sentencing in the mid-1990s throughout the nation. 

State legislatures "made a deliberate policy choice that individuals who have repeatedly engaged in serious or violent criminal behavior and whose conduct has not been deterred by more conventional approaches to punishment must be isolated from society ... to protect public safety," she said. 

O'Connor said the Supreme Court has a long-standing tradition of deferring to state legislatures on such policy choices. 

She acknowledged controversy over California's law, with critics questioning its wisdom, cost efficiency and effectiveness. 


O'Connor said the criticism should be directed to the state legislature, not the Supreme Court and added, "We do not sit as a 'superlegislature' to second-guess these policy choices." 

The law, whose name derives from the baseball rule "three strikes and you're out," was adopted in 1994 amid public anger over the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas. Richard Allen Davis, a repeat offender on parole, was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death. 

The three-strikes law mandates a sentence ranging from 25 years to life in prison for defendants if they have already been found guilty of two "serious or violent" crimes. The felonies are specified by law and typically are offenses involving violence or threat of violence. 

Crimes that might otherwise be considered misdemeanors may be treated as felonies under California's law, meaning shoplifting or other less serious crimes can trigger a long sentence. 

The rulings could affect about 350 California prisoners who were convicted under the law, with petty theft as their third offense. About 7,000 inmates are serving life terms under the law. 

California has the nation's toughest three-strikes law. About half the 50 states have a similar provision -- one of a number of get-tough measures adopted in the 1990s in response to escalating crime rates. 

State officials said focusing on the small percentage of career offenders has helped lower the crime rate. 

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Anthony Kennedy fully agreed with O'Connor's reasoning. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed with the outcome, but had different interpretations on the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. 

The court's most liberal members -- Justices Stephen Breyer, John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- dissented. 

Breyer, who took the rare step of reading parts of his dissent from the bench, said Ewing's sentence amounted to "overkill." 

He said Ewing's sentence of 25 years was two or three times what he would have received in other jurisdictions in similar circumstances. 

In dissenting in the other case, Souter wrote, "If Andrade's sentence is not grossly disproportionate, the principle has no meaning." 

Supreme Court upholds long sentences under three-strikes-you're-out law for repeat criminals 
ANNE GEARAN, Associated Press Writer 
Wednesday, March 5, 2003 
©2003 Associated Press 

URL:  http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/news/archive/2003/03/05/national1025EST0584.DTL

(03-05) 10:00 PST WASHINGTON (AP) -- 

The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld long sentences meted out under the nation's toughest three-time offender law, ruling that a prison term of 25 years to life is not too harsh for a small-time thief who shoplifted golf clubs. 

California's three-strikes-and-you're-out law does not necessarily lead to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment, the court said, even though a relatively minor crime can yield a life term if the criminal has a felony record. 

The court divided 5-4 in two cases testing the limits of California's Proposition 184, intended to close the revolving prison door for criminals with lengthy, violent records. 

Twenty-six states and the federal government have some version of a three-strikes law, which typically allow a life prison term or something close to it for a person convicted of a third felony. 

Wednesday's rulings address only the effects of the California law. But the high court's reasoning will likely shield other three-strikes laws from similar constitutional challenges. 

"This makes it extremely difficult if not impossible to challenge any recidivist sentencing law," said University of Southern California law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who represented one of the men in Wednesday's cases. "If these sentences aren't cruel and unusual punishment, what would be?" 

A chief author of the law, former California Secretary of State Bill Jones, said the court understood what the state was trying to do. 

"Our goal in California is to have no more victims," a written statement from Jones said. "The court's decision today ensures that repeat murderers, robbers, rapists and child molesters will be off our streets as soon as they commit an additional felony." 

The court noted the popularity of three-strikes laws and the public fears behind them. State legislatures should have leeway to keep career criminals away from the public, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the majority. 

"When the California legislature enacted the three-strikes law, it made a judgment that protecting the public safety requires incapacitating criminals who have already been convicted of at least one serious or violent crime," O'Connor wrote. 

The Constitution's Eighth Amendment guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment does not prohibit California from making that choice, she wrote. Complaints about the law should be directed at legislators, she added. 

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Anthony Kennedy fully agreed with O'Connor's reasoning. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed with the outcome. 

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

The sentence means Ewing, an AIDS patient, would serve at least 25 years in prison without possibility of parole, Breyer noted on behalf of himself and Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

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. 

Breyer read a summary of his dissent from the bench, a step justices usually reserve for cases in which there is strong, often ideological, disagreement. 

The same lineup of justices also acted in another case, a widely noted appeal in which a small-time burglar was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison for stealing videos from KMart. 

The court reversed a federal appeals court ruling which had found Leandro Andrade's sentence unconstitutional. 

California's law was adopted by referendum in 1994, largely in response to the murder of schoolgirl Polly Klass by a repeat criminal who was out on parole. 

Three-strikes laws in other states and the federal government were also passed in the 1990s, when the spread of crack cocaine fed public fears about rising violent crime. 

Supporters of the laws say they keep habitual criminals off the streets and serve as a deterrent for criminals who already have one or two felonies on their record. 

Critics say the laws are too harsh and inflexible in general, and particularly so in California. 

The California law requires a sentence of 25 years to life in prison for any felony conviction if the criminal was previously convicted of two serious or violent felonies. It also permits judges to treat as felonies a third offense that would otherwise be a misdemeanor. 

In practice, the California law has often meant harsh prison terms for people like Ewing and Andrade. 

A clerk in an El Segundo, Calif., pro shop noticed Ewing trying to make off with the $399 clubs shoved down one pants leg. 

Ewing had four prior convictions for robbery and burglary. Although prosecutors could have charged him with a misdemeanor in the golf club case, they chose to charge him with a felony under the state's three-strikes law. 

Andrade's "third strike" was a 1995 charge for twice shoving children's videos down his pants and walking out of Southern California KMart stores. The tapes, including "Batman Forever" and "Cinderella," were worth $153. 

Andrade was eligible for extra punishment under the three-strikes law because he had a history of burglaries. He was sentenced to two consecutive terms of 25 years to life, with no possibility of parole until 2046, when Andrade would be 87. 

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

Thursday, March 6, 2003 

Reform of '3 strikes' left to Californians 

You could make an argument either way on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision Wednesday in two California cases in which this state's "three strikes" law was an issue. Sentences of 25 years to life for stealing a golf club and of 50 years for stealing $153 worth of videos - third felonies in both cases - are certainly cruel and unusual. But are they so cruel and unusual as to be unconstitutional? And if the court so decided, would it open the gate for hundreds of appeals? 

The court decided, 5-4, with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor writing the opinion, not to overturn these sentences. The court had not been asked to overturn the law, just to find that as applied to these two defendants the sentences were so unreasonable as to require intervention. 

We certainly thought so. Gary Ewing is serving 25-to-life for stealing a $399 golf club, following four prior convictions for robbery and burglary. Leandro Andrade is serving 50-to-life for stealing $153 worth of videos, following a history of burglaries. It costs taxpayers at least $25,000 a year to house each of the two. 

As we have argued many times, California's "three strikes" law needs fine-tuning but not outright repeal. Twenty-six states and the federal government have some version of a "strikes" law, but California's is by far the harshest, allowing for a 25-to-life sentence for any felony if an offender already has two "strikes." Most jurisdictions require a crime to be violent to trigger an enhanced sentence, and we're still convinced that when they voted for Proposition 184 in 1994 Californians thought it pertained to violent criminals. 

We talked to USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who argued the Andrade case before the Supreme Court. He pointed out that there are 344 people serving 25-to-life for third strikes that were petty theft. "Just from a practical perspective - leave aside the constitutional question - I don't understand how it makes sense to lock up a person for life for shoplifting," he told us. 

Joe Klaas, Polly Klaas's grandfather, would agree. You may remember that the vicious abduction and murder of Polly Klaas by a repeat offender set the stage for the passage of California's "three strikes" law. Joe Klaas supported it in 1994, having been told it would punish violent criminals. But after reading it more carefully and considering its implications, he became a reform advocate. 

Several efforts to reform California's law have failed to get enough signatures to get on the ballot. Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg has introduced AB 112, which would place a sensible reform measure on the ballot, but nobody knows if Gov. Davis would sign it. 

That places the burden on reformers to redouble their efforts. This law really should be changed. 


California three strikes law: a sacrosanct political experiment

By DAVID KRAVETS, AP Legal Affairs Writer 
Published 4:40 p.m. PST Wednesday, March 5, 2003 

The decision Wednesday by the U.S. Supreme Court upholding California's three-strikes sentencing law was an endorsement of what has evolved into a sacrosanct political experiment. Tinkering with the three-strikes law, which metes out life terms for petty crimes such as stealing a handful of videotapes, 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, which voters and lawmakers approved in 1994 after a repeat felon kidnapped and murdered a Northern California girl. Every effort to limit three-strikes this legislative season or in the past - for humanitarian or prison cost-cutting reasons - has failed or died from a threatened gubernatorial veto. 

"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." 

Lawmakers aren't the only ones keeping out of the three-strikes debate.The California Supreme Court never took up the question of whether three-strikes produces cruel-and-unusual sentences - leaving it instead to the nation's highest court 3,000 miles away. California's justices, while granting judges the power to hand down softer sentences than three-strikes requires, declined to hear every cruel-and-unusual punishment challenge to three-strikes that came before them. 

"They may not have taken it because they thought the constitutional issue was insubstantial," said Stephen Barnett, a University of California, Berkeley, legal scholar. "It was plainly a lot more substantial than many issues they review."Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has proposed what other states are doing to reduce their budget messes: early prison releases in a plan that he said could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year. 

That proposal, which never cleared committee, would exclude nonviolent inmates serving life terms under the three-strikes law. "I believed it was more doable in this fashion," Leno said. Instead, California lawmakers approved a bill, estimated to save $70 million a year, that would slightly reduce the prison terms of petty and nonviolent offenders if they are willing to do prison work and none is available. 

The measure, now on Gov. Gray Davis' desk, excludes nonviolent offenders sentenced under the three-strikes law. It costs an estimated $27,000 a year to house a California inmate. The Department of Corrections says roughly 344 inmates are serving at least 25-to-life terms for petty theft crimes that, without the three-strikes law, would require sentences of about one to three years. Davis, a staunch supporter of the three-strikes law, has proposed cutting an average 9 percent from nearly every state department - except for the prison system's $5.24 bbillion annual budget. 

"The people passed this law some years ago and I am happy the ... Supreme Court upheld it," Davis said in his weekly radio address Wednesday. The sentences the U.S. Supreme Court upheld concerned Leandro Andrade, who got 50-to-life for stealing nine children's videotapes from Kmart, and Gary Ewing, serving 25-to-life for taking three golf clubs, stuffing them down his pants at a golf course. Outside California, a 25-year prison term is more the norm for someone convicted of first-degree murder, not shoplifting, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his dissent. In its 5-4 majority opinion, the high court noted the popularity of three-strikes laws and the public fears behind them. 

State legislatures should have leeway to keep career criminals away from the public, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote. The law requires at least a 25-years-to-life term for defendants convicted of any felony after already having been convicted of two serious or violent felonies. Many states followed California's lead, but none demanded such lengthy terms. Erwin Chemerinsky, who represented one of the men in the cases decided Wednesday, said it makes no financial sense to imprison shoplifters or petty offenders for so long. 

"There's a lot of money here we're using to incarcerate for minor offenses that can be used for schools," he said.---Editors: David Kravets has been covering state and federal courts for a decade. 


Tough crime laws OK'd Supreme Court upholds '3 strikes' 
By Joan Biskupic 

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court upheld the nation's toughest ''three strikes'' law Wednesday, and separately approved public registries of convicted sex offenders mandated under Megan's laws. 

In four rulings and by varying votes, justices reinforced the wide latitude states have to fight crime. They also endorsed two fairly new weapons against repeat criminals and child predators. 

Wednesday's rulings revealed the court's deep ideological split. 

Justices voted 5-4 in two three-strikes cases to affirm a 25-year sentence for a man who stole golf clubs and a 50-year sentence for a man who shoplifted videotapes. 

In a forceful opinion by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the court said states rightly have decided that repeat offenders ''must be isolated from society . . . to protect the public safety,'' even when crimes that are not serious or violent trigger the lengthy sentence. 

California's three-strikes law is unusually severe in allowing minor crimes to constitute a third strike and set off at least 25 years in prison. Half of all states have their own variations of three strikes. 

Reading parts of her opinion from the bench, O'Connor said although Gary Ewing's sentence for stealing golf clubs is long, so is his record. Ewing previously was convicted of burglary and robbery. 

Justice Stephen Breyer took the unusual step of reading aloud parts of the dissent. Noting that the clubs taken from a pro shop at the El Segundo golf course cost $1,197, Breyer said the court should have found the sentence ''grossly disproportionate'' to the crime and in violation of the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. 

Breyer was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter. 

In a similar 5-4 vote, the court rejected a last-ditch appeal by Leandro Andrade, who was sentenced under ''three-strikes'' to 50 years in prison for stealing videotapes from two Kmart stores. 

Also Wednesday, justices voted 9-0 to reject a challenge to a Connecticut version of Megan's law that puts out convicts' names without first determining whether they are still dangerous. 

They ruled 6-3 in an Alaska case that states can demand registration of sex offenders whose crimes were committed before the law was passed. 

Megan's laws generally require freed sex offenders to give authorities their addresses and places of employment. The information is available on the Internet or elsewhere, so communities know when a convict is in their midst. 


 U.N.I.O.N. Home