Should shoplifters be given life terms? Three-strikes arguments begin in Supreme Court

By the Associated Press
The Missoulian


WASHINGTON (AP) - A conflicted Supreme Court debated Tuesday whether it's unconstitutional for states to lock up shoplifters, burglars or other petty criminals for life in the name of public safety.

Justices are considering striking down California's three-strikes-you're-out law, the toughest in the nation. Their ruling, expected next year, could curb states' efforts to give long sentences to revolving-door criminals or signal that other states can strengthen their laws.

During Tuesday's oral arguments, some justices seemed reluctant to interfere with state punishments, despite concerns about long sentences given in minor crimes.

The California law, which requires a sentence of 25 years to life for any felony conviction if the defendant has previously been convicted of two serious or violent felonies, put a man who shoplifted children's videocassettes in prison until 2046 and gave another man a life sentence for taking three golf clubs.

"No other state in the country would impose a punishment like this," Erwin Chemerinsky, the attorney for the man who stole $153 worth of videotapes, told the court.

The three-strikes law was passed in 1994 after voters endorsed tougher sentences amid public furor over the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas. The law has been credited with lowering crime in California. Opponents say it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and is therefore unconstitutional.

About 350 inmates received life terms for petty offenses, officials have said.

"There comes a point when the state has a right to say enough is enough," Douglas Danzig, a deputy attorney general in California, told justices.

Justice Stephen Breyer said the crimes seemed minor, but noted: "We cannot convert this court into a sentencing commission. There has to be a way of deciding: Did they go too far?"


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