Crippling California’s “three strikes” law, the state’s highest court said Thursday that judges don’t have to impose life sentences on repeat criminals if they think the punishment is too harsh.
In a decision that could affect thousands of cases in California, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that judges still have authority to impose lesser sentences based on the facts of a case and the defendant’s background.
The ruling also invited any prisoner sentenced under the 1994 law to ask the sentencing judge for reconsideration.
“This is something that really strikes at the heart of three strikes and blows a tremendous hole in it,” said former Contra Costa County sheriff and Republican state Assemblyman Richard Rainey.
Supporters had said the law required the mandatory sentences unless a prosecutor decided a more lenient sentence was justified. The court’s ruling interprets the law as giving judges the same power as prosecutors.
Republican legislative leaders immediately announced plans to overturn the decision. Reversing the ruling would probably require a voter-approved constitutional amendment.
The law, passed by the Legislature in March 1994 and reaffirmed by voters the following November, was fueled by the kidnap and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas in 1993. Richard Allen Davis, an ex-convict who killed the girl shortly after he was paroled, was convicted of murder Tuesday and could be sentenced to death.
The state’s three strikes law defines certain violent or serious crimes as “strikes.” Anyone with one strike who is convicted of a new felony must be sentenced to at least twice the usual term. A person with two strikes who is convicted of any felony gets 25 years to life.
The mandatory nature of the third-strike sentence was a central provision of the law and touted by supporters as a way to stop lenient judges.
Supporters, including Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, credit the law with a substantial drop in the crime rate.
Critics say crime was dropping prior to the law, and cite statistics showing that 85 percent of the second and third strikes have been for nonviolent crimes, including burglary, drug offenses and shoplifting.
The decision by the court, six of whose seven members are Republican appointees, was based on a case involving Jesus Romero, a man whose prior convictions for attempted burglary and burglary counted as two strikes against him when he was later convicted of cocaine possession, a third strike.
Over the prosecutor’s objections, Superior Court Judge William Mudd sentenced Romero to six years, ruling that 25 years to life would be cruel and unusual punishment.
xxxx What it means here The California ruling does not affect the 19 other states, including Washington, which have some version of the three strikes law.