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.