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Supreme Court Upholds' Three-Strikes' Law

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Posted On: March 5, 2003          Updated On: March 05, 2003
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

Supreme Court Upholds' Three-Strikes' Law

Mar 5, 2003, 9:37 PM EST

The Supreme Court has ruled California's three-strikes law does not amount to cruel and unusual punishment. (Audio)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court said certain repeat offenders may be locked up for long periods for relatively minor crimes, ruling Wednesday that a sentence up to life is not too harsh for a criminal caught swiping three golf clubs.

The court also said a term of 50 years to life is not out of bounds for a small-time thief who shoplifted videotapes from Kmart. The tapes, including "Batman Forever" and "Cinderella," were worth $153.

Both men were sentenced under California's toughest-in-the-nation law for repeat criminals, known as three-strikes. By votes of 5-4, the court said the law does not necessarily lead to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

Gary Albert Ewing had more than a dozen prior convictions when a clerk at an El Segundo, Calif., 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. O'Connor listed Ewing's earlier convictions, which include theft, battery and burglary.

Like similar laws in 25 other states and the federal government, the California law was intended to shut the revolving prison door for career criminals. The laws typically allow a life prison term or something close to it for someone convicted of a third felony.

In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the Ewing case is a rare example of a sentence that is so out of proportion to the crime that it is unconstitutional. He was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Outside California's three-strikes law, 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.

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.

Andrade will not be eligible for parole until 2046, when he would be 87.

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

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

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

Wednesday's main ruling 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.

"Throughout the states, legislatures enacting three strikes laws 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 in order to protect the public safety," O'Connor wrote.

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, but wrote separately to say they think the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment is not a guarantee against sentences like Ewing's.

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," Jones said in a written statement. "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 cases are Ewing v. California, 01-6978, and Lockyer v. Andrade, 01-1127.

On the Net:

Supreme Court:

Excerpts From'Three-Strikes' Ruling
Mar 5, 2003  7:20 PM EST

The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld California's tough "three-strikes" law aimed at keeping repeat criminals behind bars. Here are some excerpts from the 5-4 judgment, and the dissent.

From the main opinion, written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Anthony Kennedy:

"Between 1993 and 1995, three strikes laws effected a sea change in criminal sentencing throughout the nation. These laws responded to widespread public concerns about crime by targeting the class of offenders who pose the greatest threat to public safety: career criminals."

"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. Nothing in the Eighth Amendment prohibits California from making that choice."

"Ewing was convicted of felony grand theft for stealing nearly $1,200 worth of merchandise after previously having been convicted of at least two 'violent' or 'serious' felonies. Even standing alone, Ewing's theft should not be taken lightly."

"In weighing the gravity of Ewing's offense, we must place on the scales not only his current felony, but also his long history of felony recidivism."

"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."

From Justice Antonin Scalia's separate opinion concurring in the judgment:

"The plurality is not applying law but evaluating policy. Because I agree that (Ewing's) sentence does not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments, I concur in the judgment."


From a dissenting opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer and joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

"The Eighth Amendment forbids, as 'cruel and unusual punishment,' prison terms ... that are grossly disproportionate," to the crime, as the high court has interpreted that principle.

"I believe that the case before us is a rare case - one in which a court can say with reasonable confidence that the punishment is grossly disproportionate to the crime."

"Well-publicized instances of shoplifting suggest that the offense is often punished without any prison sentence at all."

Apart from sentences under the three strikes law, California "reserves the sentence that it here imposes upon former-burglar-now-golf-club-thief Ewing, for nonrecidivist, first-degree murderers."

"As to other jurisdictions, we know the following: The United States, bound by the federal sentencing guidelines, would impose upon a recidivist such as Ewing a sentence that, in any ordinary case, would not exceed 18 months in prison."

"Outside the California three strikes context, Ewing's recidivist sentence is virtually unique in its harshness for his offense of conviction, and by a considerable degree."


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