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Three-strikes sanity

California's three-strikes law has resulted in some egregious sentences; a Stanford University law clinic is helping to undo some of the damage.

May 16, 2009

This page has never been a fan of the three-strikes law. When it appeared on a California ballot in 1994, we warned that this capricious measure (why three strikes and not two or four? would our criminal justice system be fundamentally different if baseball had different rules?) would lock the state into a rigid sentencing system that would overwhelm prisons. We foresaw inequities in sentencing minor offenders to extremely long terms, effectively equating burglars and petty thieves with murderers and rapists. Sadly, those warnings have been borne out by the state's 15-year experiment with this misguided system.

Three-strikes requires a sentence of 25 years to life for a defendant who, having been convicted of two previous violent or serious crimes, is convicted of another, even a nonviolent offense. That has resulted in plenty of serious offenders being incarcerated, but it also has imposed long terms on many less serious felons. Today, roughly 40% of the third-strike offenders in California prisons are serving extraordinarily long sentences for nonviolent crimes

In the face of such dismaying experience, it is heartening to find pockets of resistance, as some lawyers, prosecutors and students continue to blunt the law's worst effects. One of those efforts was detailed this week by The Times' Jack Leonard, who reported on a Stanford University law clinic in which students are identifying particularly egregious examples and are succeeding in having some judges overturn draconian sentences. Norman Williams, for instance, was convicted of stealing a car jack and some tools from a tow truck and was sentenced to 25 years to life in 1997 because two burglary convictions and some drug offenses made his theft a third strike. The Stanford students persuaded Williams' sentencing judge to look again at the case, this time considering Williams' background and criminal history. The judge concluded that Williams' tool theft warranted a 10-year sentence. Williams is now free as a result.

The Stanford clinic has helped to undo some of the worst damage, but it can handle only about 20 cases at a time. Others, meanwhile, are commendably fighting to keep outrageous sentences from being imposed in the first place. At the top of that list of admirable officials is Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who has defied the most fervent victims' lobbies and refused to charge third strikes in most cases in which the third offense was nonviolent. Cooley's principled approach to these cases has not always won him friends among prosecutors, but it has introduced a measure of reason into the county's criminal justice system. Notably, there is no evidence that Cooley's exercise of discretion has done anything to contribute to crime or endanger our communities -- serious and violent crime has continued its steady decline here throughout his tenure.

Three-strikes was bad law in 1994; it remains as callous, unnecessary and ill-considered today as it was then. Thankfully, efforts such as these have kept it from being even worse.

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