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