Despite a recent dip in national crime rates, senseless killings and mindless brutality remain a formidable challenge for community leaders and law enforcement officials across the country. Stray gunfire and unbridled rage have fostered a feverish climate of helpless fear that continues to kindle deep anxieties among Americans in both small towns and large cities.
Demands for tougher laws and harsher penalties for criminal behavior are almost universal. In 1994, California enacted the nation’s most arduous version of a strict “three-strikes” law, which mandates severe sentences for repeat offenders. More than 70 percent of the state’s voters backed the initiative, which required judges to automatically double sentences delivered to twice-convicted felons.
Although declining crime rates during the last year accompanied California’s earnest efforts to enforce the three-strikes law, so did crowded courthouses, soaring incarceration costs and ridiculously extreme sentences for convicted felons guilty of relatively minor third offenses. The law refused judges the right to consider a criminal’s prior history of offenses as well as the severity of the third felony charge in rendering a sentence. Consequently, prosecuting attorneys maintained the exclusive authority to eliminate prior convictions in orchestrating plea bargains. Two weeks ago, the California Supreme Court sensibly declared the three-strikes law unconstitutional.
The state court concluded the law violated the constitutional separation of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Certainly, California’s three-strikes law does provide a forceful mechanism for keeping dangerous repeat offenders off the streets. But denying judges the right to consider the particular circumstances distinguishing each case confers disproportionate power to the prosecution, threatening an individual’s right to a just defense.
Republican party leaders in California, including Gov. Pete Wilson, are outraged by the court’s decision. In response to the ruling, Wilson joined legislators in Sacramento who plan to introduce a constitutional amendment that would again erode a judge’s right to consider exceptional circumstances in third strike cases. Even more drastic, the proposal would also eliminate the prosecutor’s ability to negotiate plea bargains in similar cases.
Such ironclad application of the law is a matter of considerable controversy. One twice-convicted criminal received a 25-year sentence for stealing a single slice of pepperoni pizza on his third strike; another received the same stern penalty for swiping two packs of cigarettes. Certainly, these examples border on the absurd. Nevertheless, they illustrate the potential injustice inherent to inflexible judicial mandates.
Los Angeles is home to the largest and most visible court system in the nation. A relaxed three-strikes law, permitting judicial authority to consider each case, demands further consideration. But Republican legislators in California cannot be permitted to establish a national precedent condoning the violation of both the constitutional provision for a separation of powers and an individual’s right to a fair trial.