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HEARTS of the CITY | Navigating the Real World

A rotating panel of experts from the worlds of philosophy, psychology and religion offer their perspective on the dilemmas that come with living in Southern California.

June 26, 1996|LARRY B. STAMMER / Times religion writer

Today's question: The state Supreme Court has restored a trial judge's sentencing discretion when it comes to "third strike" felony cases. From your perspective, is justice served by imposing a mandatory 25-year prison sentence for a relatively minor felony such as petty theft if the defendant has been convicted of two previous violent or serious crimes?

Father Thomas P. Rausch

Chairman, Department of Theology, Loyola Marymount University

The "three strikes" rule makes sense in the case of a third violent crime, but not when the third charge is a minor offense, a stolen pair of blue jeans or a micro amount of marijuana. First of all, the rule, when interpreted rigidly, takes all discretionary power away from the judiciary, which should have the ability to weigh and balance. We seem to have removed the scales from Lady Justice's hands. Second, those who are most affected by a rigid interpretation are the poor and powerless, 0which suggests that our society lacks both compassion and wisdom. Perhaps it does. The state of California spends more [per capita] on prison inmates than it does on pupils.

Rabbi Marvin Hier

Dean, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Los Angeles

The "three strikes" law protects our communities and our families. It puts criminals on notice that society has a collective memory, and that repeat offenders suffer grave consequences. But even a dispassionate justice should not be dispensed cafeteria-style. The law cannot be interpreted using a form of an automated teller machine where a computer decides whether a perpetrator earns a life sentence. Human justice should never be meted out in an atmosphere devoid of compassion. The perpetrator may not deserve any. But the interpreter of the law who decides that must have a heart as well as a brain, a conscience as well as a memory. I agree with the Supreme Court decision that only a trial judge should decide the proverbial "who shall live and who shall die."

Dr. Maher Hathout

Physician and spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California, Los Angeles.

The purpose of sentencing a person should be twofold. First, to give this person a chance to correct his course. Being out of the social loop will give him a chance to reassess the values of life and to appreciate the blessings of freedom, and hopefully to repent. Second, to protect society by isolating those who are a threat to others. Based on that, a person who is tried and has paid his or her dues is supposedly starting on a clean slate. Previous behavior should not haunt that person forever. In cases when there is a pattern of violent crime, obviously securing the safety of others takes precedence, but an ex-felon should not pay for the price of a major felony if she or he only commits a simple crime. Based on that I don't think that justice is served by blindly applying the three strikes law.

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