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Justices Deal Blow to '3 Strikes' : Lower Courts Allowed Discretion in Sentencing

Law: Ruling by state high court could trigger appeals by nearly 20,000 sent to prison since 1994. Wilson assails decision, vows to restore tough mandates.

June 21, 1996|MAURA DOLAN and TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAN FRANCISCO — In a major blow to the state's tough "three strikes" law, the California Supreme Court decided Thursday that judges have the power to spare defendants lengthy sentences by overlooking prior convictions.

The unanimous ruling is expected to have major ramifications for defendants sentenced under the 1994 law, potentially sparking a deluge of nearly 20,000 appeals in an already crowded court system.

Victims rights activists and state Republican leaders condemned the ruling, with some calling on voters to vent their anger on the court--which is dominated by conservative Republicans--as individual justices face confirmation. But civil libertarians and other critics of the "three strikes" law praised the seven justices for their courage and independence.

Gov. Pete Wilson called the decision, written by one of his appointees, "potentially dangerous to public safety."

"We cannot tolerate a situation which permits judges who are philosophically unsympathetic or politically disinclined to 'three strikes' to reduce the strong sentences that the voters intended to impose on habitual criminals," said Wilson, who promised to help pass amendments to the law that would restore tougher sentencing mandates.

The "three strikes" law, passed partly in reaction to the murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a repeat offender, mandated a doubling of the usual sentence for a second felony conviction and a minimum 25-year sentence for third felonies if the earlier convictions were for violent or serious crimes. But the court ruled that the law did not eliminate a judge's discretion in sentencing and even if it had, that would have been unconstitutional.

Secretary of State Bill Jones, one of the authors of the "three strikes" law, said he was "disgusted" by the "appalling" ruling.

"This is a war," he said. "It is costing us lives across the country. And I do not believe this is the appropriate time for a turf war--which is what I believe this is--over judicial discretion."

But just as conservatives were condemning the court, which typically rules in their favor, liberals found themselves defending the law-and-order justices.

"I think the cornerstone of our system is the independence of the judiciary," said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, "and that is exactly why we have that branch of government--to keep the tyranny of the majority from taking away constitutional rights from people."

She said the ruling underscored the court's independence, and she predicted that many will support the decision. "When people in this state voted for 'three strikes,' " she said, "they were unaware of the implications, and now that people have been more educated, opinions will change."

The court's ruling came in its first examination of the 2-year-old law, which also had been approved by 72% of the voters. Justices held that a trial judge can disregard prior felonies and reduce a potential sentence from life to just a few years "in furtherance of justice."

Under the law, such authority was granted specifically to prosecutors, but judges have traditionally enjoyed discretion in sentencing and many bristled at the inflexibility.

The court, however, said that the law did not eliminate a judge's discretion just because the statute was silent on the subject and that even if the law had barred judicial involvement, that would have been unconstitutional. With the ruling, prisoners convicted of second and third felonies now may file petitions asking trial judges to reduce their sentences. In many cases, trial judges had told defendants that they would have discounted prior felony convictions if the law had allowed it.

"The potential is that 20,000 cases may be coming back," said San Mateo County Dist. Atty. James P. Fox, who also is president of the California District Attorneys Assn. "I think there will be some congestion" in the courts.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers predicted that many trial judges now will be willing to disregard a prior conviction for defendants whose records are largely nonviolent.

Writing for the court, Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar said that "the disposition of a charge is a judicial responsibility."

Werdegar noted, however, that judges cannot dismiss prior felonies simply to relieve a congested court calendar or because of "antipathy" toward the sentencing law. They must explain their reasoning, and appellate courts can decide whether the decisions are sound, she wrote.

Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, a Republican, and Senate Republican Leader Rob Hurtt, both of Garden Grove, said the justices must now answer to the voters.

"If they make bad decisions, they [the justices] should be voted out," Pringle said. "It is one of the worst decisions I have ever seen."

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