Leandor Andrade is serving a prison sentence of 50 years to life – he will be eligible for parole in 2046, when he will be 87 years old – not for murder, rape or any other violent offense, but because he shoplifted $150 worth of videotapes. Another California inmate, Gary Ewing, is serving 25 years to life for attempting to walk out of a pro shop with several golf clubs stuffed down his pant leg. Both are victims of California’s egregiously overzealous three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws, which were enacted in 1994 in an effort to deter repeat offenders.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to look at these cases to determine whether this California law – and perhaps similar laws in other states – violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Though California has the strictest repeat-offender laws, states such as Rhode Island, Texas, Louisiana and West Virginia are not far behind. All told, 40 states allow increased sentencing for repeat offenders in nonviolent cases, and 26 have a three-strikes provision. But only in California can prosecutors arbitrarily kick a misdemeanor offense up to a felony to extend the sentence.
There is a reason petty crimes do not merit long sentences in the United States. It is because U.S. citizens recognize some legal transgressions simply are not serious. The pro shop’s loss of three golf clubs and the K-Mart’s loss of $150 worth of videotapes do not constitute a danger to society. It is wrong to steal, but petty theft is called “petty” for a reason. Likewise, the damage done to the offender in cases like this far outweighs the benefit society receives from having him off the street. Prisons are terrible places, and we should not be putting people there for the majority of their lives to ensure the security of videos and golf clubs. Such punishments clearly are both cruel and unusual.
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer wrote to the court, “Nothing in the Constitution requires society to wait for another person to be victimized by another serious or violent crime before isolating (repeat offenders) for a substantial period of time.” That he would lump Andrade’s and Ewing’s offenses into the same group as murder, assault or rape is downright insulting to the victims of these atrocities. These were neither serious nor violent.
It is a pity that these two individuals had to experience all they’ve wrongfully been put through before this California law – and, we hope, similar laws in other states – came under the court’s scrutiny. Now that the jurists have taken a look at it, however, their course should be clear. These ridiculous three-strikes laws should have been ruled “out” long ago.