Uproar over 3-strikes ruling dies down as reality sets in

by Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

Despite an initial uproar over a Supreme Court ruling weakening California's three strikes law, the decision so far has neither resulted in new legislation nor opened a floodgate of appeals.

Early predictions that the June 20 decision could apply to as many as 20,000 California inmates were scaled back quickly. And an effort by Republican legislators to overturn the decision was blocked in the state Senate last month.

The court still faces five other issues that have arisen since the get-tough law was enacted in March 1994, one which may be argued as early as September.

The court ruled unanimously in June that judges have the authority to overlook a defendant's prior convictions "in the interest of justice."

By allowing only prosecutors to disregard prior convictions in three strikes cases, the law violated the separation of powers between branches of government required by the Constitution, the court ruled.

Supporters of the ruling said it reaffirmed the discretionary power of judges. Opponents said it undermined the three strikes law.

Under the law, defendants convicted of a second violent or serious crime face double prison time, and a third felony is grounds for a term of 25 years to life.

Senate Republican leader Rob Hurtt of Garden Grove quickly drafted a bill to require that judges impose full three strikes sentences in three areas: If the felon facing a three strikes sentence previously was convicted of a violent crime; if the current crime was a serious or violent felony; and if the felon was released from prison within five years of committing the latest felony.

The measure was blocked in the Senate Criminal Procedure Committee by a 4-1 vote.

"We can and will continue to hammer violent criminals, but without wasting taxpayers' money on inordinately long sentences for minor offenses," said Sen. President Pro Tem Bill Locker, D-Hayward, who earlier had described the bill as a "rushed, panicky reaction" to the Supreme Court decision.

Prosecutors, although generally unhappy with the court ruling, also opposed the measure because they said it was legally flawed.

The vote was a setback for Gov. Pete Wilson, Attorney General Dan Lungren and Hurtt, who had called for a special committee hearing even though most lawmakers had started their summer break.

"Today's decision to reject a well-crafted correction to the 'three strikes' law demonstrates the Senate Criminal Procedure Committee's contempt for many Californians who live in fear of crime in their own homes," said Wilson.

Lockyer and Assemblyman Phil Isenberg, D-Sacramento, proposed alternative three strikes legislation for lawmakers to consider when they return to the Capitol Aug. 5.

The measure would retain three strikes penalties for violent crimes, but remove petty theft and writing bad checks as potential strikes.

In addition, judges and prosecutors would be allowed to dismiss prior felony strikes unless the pending offense is violent or the prior conviction was for child molestation.

The Supreme Court may hear arguments as early as September in a dispute over whether prior convictions in other states can be counted as strikes.

The legislature's version of the three strikes law counts out-of-state convictions as strikes, but Prop. 184, the initiative approved later by voters, defines strikes as convictions "in this state."

One Court of Appeal panel dismissed the discrepancy as a "drafting error" that can be ignored, but another panel determined the initiative language was broad enough to include out-of-state convictions.

The Supreme Court will hear both cases.

It also has taken three other cases, including the question of whether judges can treat certain felonies as "wobblers" -- either as felonies or misdemeanors.

In other three strikes news, the Judicial Council said that challenges posed by the law, coupled with complex caseloads and budget shortfalls have placed new pressures on California's trial courts.

In a report entitled "State Court Outlook," the council said the law was responsible for more jury trials, preliminary hearings, jurors, court reporters and interpreters, court transcripts and increased security.

Criminal jury trials rose 12 percent in fiscal year 1994-95, a jump many courts attribute to the three strikes law.