The highest umpire in the land declared on Wednesday that the criminal justice system may impose stiff sentences, including life imprisonment, for repeat offenders under so-called "three strikes" laws without violating the constitutional prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishments" contained in the Eighth Amendment. The ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court also reaffirmed the proposition that the states may exercise broad discretion in experimenting with new ways to fight crime and impose punishment.
In Ewing v. California (No. 01-6978), a fragmented five-justice majority upheld the 25-years-to-life prison sentence of a career felon whose last conviction resulted from shoplifting three golf clubs priced at $399.
In an opinion authored by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Anthony Kennedy, the three held that although the sentence was "long," it was "justified by the State's public-safety interest in incapacitating and deterring recidivist felons, and amply supported by [Ewing's] own long, serious criminal record." Furthermore, they ruled that imprisonment for 25-years-to-life was "not grossly disproportionate" to "the gravity of his offense ... for stealing nearly $1,200 worth of merchandise after previously having been convicted of at least two 'violent' or 'serious' felonies." As a result, the sentence did "not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments."
The other two votes necessary to uphold California's "three strikes and you're out" law were cast by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. However, they reiterated their position from previous cases that the Constitution permits such lengthy punishments regardless of the term because "the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of 'cruel and unusual punishments' was aimed at excluding only certain modes [or types] of punishment, and was not a 'guarantee against disproportionate sentences.'" In the words of Justice Thomas: "[T]he Eighth Amendment contains no proportionality principle."
Despite the split within the majority upholding the "three strikes" sentencing scheme, the Court made it clear state policymakers enjoy wide latitude in deciding to impose harsh prison sentences with an eye toward fighting crime. The ruling also signaled the Court's willingness to defer to legislative determinations of criminal punishments.
"Selecting sentencing rationales is generally a policy choice to be made by state legislatures, not federal courts," Justice O'Connor wrote. "Throughout the States, legislatures enacting three strikes law made a deliberate policy choice that individuals who have repeatedly engaged in serious or violent criminal behavior, and whose conduct has not been deterred by more conventional approaches to punishment, may be isolated from society in order to protect the public safety. Though three strike laws may be relatively new, our tradition of deferring to state legislatures in making and implementing such important policy decisions is longstanding."
Her opinion continued: "When the California Legislature enacted the three strikes law, it made a judgment that protecting the public safety requires incapacitating criminals who have already been convicted of at least one serious or violent crime. Nothing in the Eighth Amendment prohibits California from making that choice."
The justices explained that any criticism of criminal sentences should be properly directed to state legislators and elected officials who enact the laws. "We do not sit as a 'superlegislature' to second-guess these policy choices."
Nevertheless, Justice O'Connor did not neglect to point out the success of California's change to "three strikes" sentencing. "Four years after the passage of California's three strikes law, the recidivism rate of parolees returned to prison for the commission of a new crime dropped by nearly 25 percent," she noted.March 6, 2003
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