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Senate Delays Recess to Vote on 3-Strikes Bill

Legislature: Republicans press for prompt consideration of measure. It would limit state court ruling that gives judges some latitude in sentencing.


SACRAMENTO — Under pressure from Republicans, the state Senate on Thursday agreed to delay its summer recess for a week to take up changes in the three-strikes sentencing law.

The changes, approved by the Assembly on Tuesday, are aimed at undoing parts of a state Supreme Court ruling that potentially weakens the three-strikes law.

Senate Republican Leader Rob Hurtt of Garden Grove, concerned that the bill might not be heard until August, maneuvered to keep the Senate in session so he can put his three-strikes legislation to a vote in a key Senate committee on Tuesday.

"It's too important to wait until August," Hurtt said.

Republicans took the step after Hurtt failed to convince the Democratic-controlled upper house to put the three-strikes legislation to a floor vote Thursday or today.

In election-year wrangling, Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) and the Senate Rules Committee directed that Hurtt's bill first be heard in a policy committee. As a conciliation, Lockyer suggested almost facetiously to Hurtt that the Senate could remain in session for another week, solely to take up the three-strikes bill.

To the surprise of many lawmakers and staffers, Hurtt proceeded to confer with Republican legislators and agreed to remain in Sacramento for another week.

"We have a bit of posturing by our one and only obstructionist--Sen. Lockyer," Hurtt said after he forced Lockyer's hand.

"Sen. Hurtt," Lockyer replied in a statement, "is entitled to request a prompt hearing, even though it is of no real value to Californians. It just means we won't wait until August before considering his request to blow more taxpayers' money on life sentences for pizza thieves."

Lockyer and other critics of the three-strikes law, which attempts to ensnare serious and violent felons, say it has resulted in thousands of petty thieves and nonviolent criminals being sent to prison for 25 years to life.

Hurtt introduced his legislation (SB 331) after the high court ruled on June 20 that trial court judges retain the power to grant leniency by overlooking convictions in three-strikes cases.

Hurtt's legislation seeks to limit that authority in three specific areas: if any of the previous crimes were violent; if the final crime is serious or violent, or if the final crime occurred within five years of the felon having been released from prison. Several lawmakers grumbled about having to change vacation plans. Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) charged that the Senate was "rushing to vote" on the issue at a time when several lawmakers won't be in Sacramento. She said she does not intend to be in town next week to vote on the bill, but added that even if she were, she would vote against it.

Hurtt said that without his bill, "liberal judges" will use the power granted them by the high court ruling to grant leniency to repeat felons.

Hurtt has acknowledged what Democrats believe--that part of the Republicans' motivation in pressing for the bill's passage is to make clear the support three strikes has among Republicans, and the opposition it faces from Democrats.

"If [Lockyer] doesn't let me hear it or if they kill it," Hurtt said earlier this week, "then we've shown the point that we want to make--the Republicans are for law and order and Democrats aren't."

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