Supreme Court Considers California's Three-Strikes Law

Leandro Andrade got 50 years in prison for stealing nine children's videotapes from Kmart. Gary Ewing is serving 25-to-life after stuffing three clubs down his pants at a golf course.

Now the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether these repeat offenders received cruel and unusual punishments under California's three-strikes-you're-out law.

Most states have sentencing rules that require steeper terms for revolving-door criminals, but California has the nation's toughest, providing for life terms for petty offenses such as shoplifting.

On Tuesday, the high court will hear arguments on the Andrade and Ewing cases and consider how far states can go in sentencing repeat offenders for crimes that would normally bring minimal prison terms.

Andrade, now 45, had at least three prior felony burglary convictions when he was caught stealing five children's videotapes from a Kmart in 1995. Two weeks later, while out on bail, he was caught stealing four more tapes from another Kmart. He was convicted of petty theft and sentenced to two consecutive terms of 25 years to life.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court found his sentence so "grossly disproportionate" to his crimes that it violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

California appealed. But with a 5-4 conservative bent on the high court and few similar precedents, some scholars suggest the Supreme Court will not interfere with California's law.

The 1994 law, passed after 72 percent of voters approved a three-strikes ballot initiative, requires a 25-years-to-life term for any felony committed by someone already convicted of two felonies such as rape, murder, robbery, burglary or certain other crimes.

The law also requires these convicts to serve their full sentence before being eligible for parole — a factor that has swelled the ranks inside the state's prisons, where more than 7,100 inmates are serving third-strike sentences.

About 350 of them were handed life terms for petty offenses like Andrade's and Ewing's, according to the state Corrections Department.

The law's effect on crime is a matter of dispute. Proponents say it has led to a dramatic reduction in California's crime rate. Opponents say crime began falling two years before the law was adopted.

The Supreme Court's big Eighth Amendment rulings generally involve capital punishment. The court this year prohibited states from executing retarded killers but refused to consider a challenge to executing an inmate who was 17 when he committed murder.

The court has backed tough sentences before. In 1991, the justices upheld life without parole for a Michigan man with no prior offenses who possessed a pound and a half of cocaine. In 1980, the court upheld a life term with the possibility of parole after 12 years for a repeat offender in Texas convicted of check fraud.

"I think they're going to have a hard time getting a majority of justices" to weigh in against California's sentences, said Gerald Uelmen, a Santa Clara University of Law scholar.

But attorneys for Andrade and Ewing said the men's sentences are more severe than those prescribed by any other state, so the court must overturn them to ensure uniformity.

California judges can bypass the strict sentencing requirements and hand down lighter terms, but the judges in the Andrade and Ewing cases chose not to do so.

Ewing, now 40, had several burglary and robbery convictions, one involving a knife, before he was caught with $1,200 in clubs at the Lakes at El Segundo Golf Course in 2000. Convicted of grand theft, he faced up to three years had prosecutors not applied the three-strikes law.

"A person should not have to spend the rest of his life in prison for stealing three golf clubs," said Ewing's attorney, Quin Denvir.

The state of California is urging the justices to uphold the sentences and the will of the voters.

"A person who commits a serious or violent felony on two or more occasions and who subsequently commits another felony offense, albeit not a serious or violent one, poses a significant danger to society such that he or she must be imprisoned for no less than 25 years to life," California Deputy Attorney General Douglas Danzig said.