'Three Strikes' and You're in Jail - Maybe

July 7, 2008 - 7:03 PM

(CNSNews.com) - California voters approved a "three-strikes" law in 1994 to crack down on crime, but the courts - looking at individual cases - are starting to overturn the tough sentencing guidelines.

On Thursday, a federal appeals court in San Francisco handed down a decision voiding the life sentences given to two repeat offenders convicted of shoplifting.

The court ruled that a life sentence -- with no possibility of parole for 25 years -- was "grossly disproportionate to the suspects' respective crimes - stealing three videotapes and a steering wheel alarm -- even in light of their criminal records."

The three-judge panel said the life term in both cases violated the Constitution's 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

In November, a different panel of the same court said California's "three strikes" law might be unconstitutional in some cases.

Under "three strikes," repeat offenders get life sentences on their third felony conviction, even if that felony is a non-violent crime.

According to wire reports, the recent rulings could prompt a wave of legal challenges from prisoners who are now serving life terms under California's "three strikes" law.

A bill recently introduced in the California Assembly would give voters the opportunity to reevaluate the "three strikes" law. The measure is aimed at softening the law, so people wouldn't be jailed for life for committing a petty crime.

The legislature would have to approve the bill -- and a reluctant governor would have to sign it - before the initiative could appear on the ballot in 2004.

Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, does not support revising the law. He and other opponents say weakening it now would send the wrong message to career criminals.

But other groups want to soften the tough sentencing guidelines, saying they can be used to unfairly target minorities, drug addicts, and the poor.

See Earlier Story:
Bill Would Soften California's 'Three Strikes' Law (16 Jan. 2002)