Bizarre, Draconian And Disproportionate?

The Supreme Court will decide whether the three-strikes law should send shoplifters to jail for life

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On the face of it, the penalty seems a travesty of justice. A California man steals $153 worth of children's videos from two K Marts. The nine movies, including Snow White, Cinderella and Free Willy 2, are Christmas presents, he claims. Convicted of petty theft, he is sentenced to a 50-years-to-life term in prison.

But what if the man, a sometime her-oin abuser, is a chronic offender? What if he had already served four years for burglarizing three homes? And what if, after serving that time, he had been convicted of a shoplifting offense before the K Mart incidents? Does his past thievery justify the harsh penalty for stealing videos--a punishment 50 times as long as a first-time sentence for petty theft? California legislators think so, or at least they did eight years ago. Sensing that voters were on the verge of getting ahead of them with a ballot initiative, they passed the now famous "three strikes" statute, which doubles the penalty for second-time offenders committing a serious or violent crime and mandates 25 years to life for any third felony. That's the law that district attorneys like Dennis Stout of San Bernardino County are enforcing. The video thief is "a scoundrel who has had his chances," Stout says of the case.

Scoundrel or scapegoat, Leandro Andrade is the focus of a federal-state showdown over mandatory prison sentencing. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments this week on whether Andrade's penalty amounts to unconstitutional "cruel and unusual punishment," as ruled by a federal appeals court. The court will also consider a second case, that of Gary Ewing, an aids-afflicted crack addict who was sentenced to 25 years to life for stealing three golf clubs from a pro shop in El Segundo, Calif.

The court's decision could have a broad effect. Over the past decade, 26 states and the Federal Government have enacted three-strikes statutes--part of a nationwide trend toward mandatory minimum sentences. But California's is the only one that can lead to life in prison for a nonviolent offense. Should the court uphold the Andrade and Ewing penalties, few challenges in states with more supple repeat-offender laws could hope to succeed. Says Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley: "If the court does not invalidate penalties that are this extreme, it is telling the states, 'Anything goes.'"

With 160,000 inmates, California has one of the largest prison systems in the world--bigger than those of France and Germany combined. More than a quarter of the state's inmates have been sentenced under the three-strikes law. The law swept in on a wave of public outrage after Polly Klaas, 12, a girl from Petaluma, Calif., was murdered by a parolee in 1993. Today Polly's father Marc Klaas, who initially opposed the law as too harsh, has no regrets. "It has gotten a lot more dirtbags off the streets," he says.

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