- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2002

The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether California's "three-strikes" law, the toughest in the nation, is unconstitutional when sentences ranging up to life in prison are levied on petty thieves.
"[This] sentence is not within the limits of civilized standards for the offense … committed," lawyer Karyn H. Bucur wrote in asking the Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional the practice of life terms "for misdemeanor-type crimes."
"Nothing in the Constitution requires society to wait for another person to be victimized by another serious or violent crime," California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said in urging the court to overturn a federal appeals court ruling invalidating one such sentence.
California's three-strikes law mandates a sentence ranging from 25 years to life for defendants convicted of a felony if they have been found guilty of two other serious or violent felonies.
By agreeing to hear two cases with different histories in November, the high court opened a range of potential outcomes that included letting the state continue the practice, or limiting the kinds of criminals to whom courts could say "three strikes and you're out."
Twenty-six states have some form of three-strikes law, but California is the only one permitting life sentences for relatively minor offenses as the third strike. The cases, brought from separate courts by different attorneys, involve:
cLeandro Andrade, a heroin addict with seven burglary convictions, who received two consecutive 25-year sentences in 1995 for shoplifting nine videotapes worth $153.94 in two visits to Kmart. His sentence left him ineligible for release until 2046, when he would be 87.
cGary A. Ewing, who received four robbery and burglary convictions from one 1994 case and had AIDS, was given 25 years to life in June 2000 for stealing three golf clubs. Police caught him with the clubs, which cost $399 each, during a comic getaway as he limped stiff-legged from the pro shop to his car with clubs stuffed in a pants leg.
California courts call such minor offenses "wobblers" on the border between misdemeanor and felony, punishable by six months or a year in jail but the state may rank them as major felonies when a convicted defendant has two or more previous serious felony "strikes."
In November, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Andrade's sentence, calling it "grossly disproportionate" and therefore cruel and unusual punishment for a man whose past burglary convictions involved no violence.
In another decision last month, the same court said imposing life sentences on a man who shoplifted three videotapes, and another who stole a car alarm, was unconstitional even though their previous felonies involved violence.
"I think it is outrageous that someone could be sentenced to 50 years in prison for shoplifting $150 worth of videotapes," said Andrade's attorney, University of Southern California law school professor Erwin Chemerinsky. He said 350 petty thieves have received life sentences under the law.
Mr. Lockyer opposed a Supreme Court review of the case, saying the court let stand three-strikes laws with sentences up to life in other states. But Miss Bucur said Justices David H. Souter, Stephen G. Breyer, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg voiced qualms about such laws while dissenting from such actions.
Miss Bucur appealed directly to the high court after the state Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from Ewing's sentence for grand theft. Unlike Andrade's, Ewing's previous robbery convictions left him in a more serious category.
Both lawyers agree that governments have the power to punish repeat criminals harshly. State figures said more than 7,000 convicts were serving life under three-strikes laws, and 57 percent of the triggering crimes were nonviolent.
All the attorneys in the case were unavailable at their offices yesterday because Easter Monday is a state holiday.
California's three-strikes law was passed as a voter initiative in reaction to the kidnapping and murder of Polly Klaas, 12, by repeat offender Richard Davis, who was on parole at the time.


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