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'Three Strikes' Sentencing Debate Heads to US Supreme Court - 2002-04-05

A legal battle over a California law that imposes long prison sentences on repeat criminal offenders will be brought before the U.S. Supreme Court later this year. National correspondent Jim Malone has a report.

It is known as the "three strikes law," taken from the game of baseball where a batter is declared out after three strikes.

In California, state law requires that convicted felons who commit a third offense be given a prison sentence of 25 years to life. Twenty-five other states also use some variation of the three strikes law, which is designed to crack down on repeat criminal offenders.

But now the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to the California three strikes law. The challenge is based on two cases from California. One involves a twice-imprisoned felon who stole some golf clubs and was sentenced to 25 years in jail. The second case is that of Leandro Andrade who was convicted of shoplifting $150 worth of video tapes in 1995, the year the law was enacted. But because Andrade had five previous theft convictions on his record, he was given a sentence of 50-years to life.

Andrade's lawyer, Erwin Chemerinsky, will argue his case before the Supreme Court: "A person can't be punished for their prior offenses," he says. "That would be double jeopardy. Punishment thus has to be proportionate to the crime for which the person is being sentenced."

Nearly half of the 7,200 California inmates sentenced to lengthy prison terms under the three strikes law were convicted of non-violent offenses on their third strike, many for drug possession and petty theft. Mr. Chemerinsky says he will argue that the three strikes law violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment: "Andrade is a particularly good vehicle for reviewing the three strikes law because Leandro Andrade was sentenced to 50 years to life for stealing $150 in video tapes, but he never had any violent prior offense."

But the three strikes law also has ardent defenders. Among them is Kent Scheidegger, Legal Director for the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. "We support the law. It has been effective in reducing crime in this state," he says. "We have had a sharper crime drop than the country generally, and I think that the three strikes law is a substantial part of that improvement."

Critics of the law contend that it is unfair to give long prison sentences to people for crimes that might otherwise warrant a brief jail term.

But Kent Scheidegger says the three strikes law has proven effective at stopping career criminals who often wind up back on the streets after only a short time behind bars. "And there are some people who have demonstrated by committing crimes over and over and over that they have no intention of ever being law-abiding citizens," he says. "The only way to stop them from committing crimes is to incarcerate them."

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case sometime after September and a decision is expected by June of next year.