Court affirms states' right to impose harsh jail terms

Sharply divided justices uphold sentences under California `3-strikes' law

March 06, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - A sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court affirmed yesterday the right of states to impose harsh prison terms for repeat criminals, upholding a pair of 25-year sentences for minor offenses imposed under California's tough-on-crime "three-strikes" law.

In two 5-4 votes, the high court said the long prison sentences do not violate the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment even when meted out for crimes such as shoplifting golf clubs and videotapes.

The court's rulings ended the hopes of Gary Ewing, who had stolen $1,200 worth of golf clubs, and Leandro Andrade, who had shoplifted $153 worth of videotapes from two K-Mart stores, that they could have their prison sentences drastically reduced.

Ewing was sentenced in 2000 to at least 25 years in prison for his crime. Andrade, who was convicted on a separate count of robbery for each K-Mart store, was sentenced in 1996 to two 25-year-to-life prison terms, leaving him eligible for parole in 2046.

Both men were sentenced under California's "three-strikes" law that requires a prison sentence of 25 years to life for a criminal's third felony conviction. The law was enacted in the wake of the 1993 kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas.

Writing for the majority in both cases, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said Ewing had a criminal history dating back to 1984 that included convictions for armed robbery, battery, unlawfully possessing a firearm and burglary.

"The sentence is long, but so is his criminal history," she said.

In the Andrade case, O'Connor said that he also was a career criminal, having been in and out of prison constantly for two decades. She also noted that, according to police reports, Andrade had stolen the videotape to feed his drug habit.

O'Connor was joined in both cases by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

Since California passed its three-strikes law, 25 other states and Congress have enacted their own mandatory sentencing statutes. But California's law has remained the most severe, allowing misdemeanor-type crimes, such as shoplifting, to be punished with lengthy prison sentences.

Dissenting in both cases were Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

Writing for the dissenters in the Ewing case, Breyer said Ewing's sentence was two to three times the length that he would have received outside of California.

"This sentence is out of line and by a large degree," Breyer said

Breyer noted that Ewing, an AIDS patient who was 39 when he was convicted, would likely die in prison.

In the Andrade case, Souter said: "If Andrade's sentence is not grossly disproportionate, the principle has no meaning."

Andrade was 37 when he went in, and he would be 87 when he first becomes eligible for parole in 2046.

In a pair of other decisions yesterday, the court backed laws designed to protect citizens from convicted sex offenders. The court ruled that:

The state of Alaska could post photos of convicted sex offenders on the Internet to warn residents about potential predators in their neighborhoods.

The state of Connecticut did not have to give sex offenders a hearing on whether they are "currently dangerous" before putting their pictures and addresses on the Internet.

The court also debated yesterday whether a federal law requiring public libraries to install Internet filters to block access to pornographic Web sites violates free speech rights by cutting off access to legitimate Web sites, such as those offering information about sexuality, sexually transmitted disease and breast cancer.

Solicitor General Theodore Olson argued that just as librarians refuse to stock their shelves with pornographic books and magazines, they should not be required to allow patrons to view sexually explicit content deemed harmful to minors.

But Paul Smith, who argued the case for the American Library Association, said librarians should be able to decide whether filtering is appropriate, rather than having that decision forced on them by Congress.

The law, enacted in December 2000, was challenged by the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union. Last year, a special three-judge federal panel in Philadelphia struck down the law, ruling unanimously that it violates the First Amendment when applied to public libraries. The Justice Department appealed directly to the Supreme Court.

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