The Republican race for attorney general has so far consisted mostly of an ill-informed, ideologically driven dissection of Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley's approach to prosecuting criminals under California's three-strikes law. Cooley's critics, led by state Sen. Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach) and former Chapman law school dean John Eastman, portray him as both rigid and softheaded on the law and suggest that he's coddling career criminals.
In fact, Cooley has adamantly supported three strikes — too adamantly for our taste, as it's a woefully blunt instrument that borrows a sentencing regime from the rules of baseball. In using the law, however, he has made a concession to decency: He rarely seeks a third strike when the offense being prosecuted is not a violent crime. That helps avoid some of the law's most draconian results — the petty thief, for instance, who winds up serving a 25-years-to-life sentence for stealing a batch of videotapes. Cooley does not absolutely preclude all such prosecutions; he merely requires prosecutors who want to bring a third strike in a nonviolent case to convince a supervisor that it is justified.
To Cooley's critics, this adds up to a weakness. Harman, who routinely describes his opponent as "liberal Steve Cooley," accuses him of having "led the effort to tear up" three strikes and of enabling "career criminals to commit additional heinous crimes and create more innocent victims." Eastman claims that Cooley believes "we should never be able to use a nonviolent crime as the third strike to put someone away."