Stealing a few golf clubs or videotapes is enough to merit life in prison, according to the nation's highest court. In a ruling this month on two cases challenging California's three-strikes law, the U.S. Supreme Court found that lengthy terms for nonviolent crimes are not “cruel and unusual” punishment.
The cases in question were those of Leandro Andrade, who boosted some children's videotapes from Kmart stores in Montclair and Ontario, and Gary Ewing, who was caught in a pro-shop parking lot in El Segundo with several golf clubs shoved down his pants. Both men had served time for previous, nonviolent convictions. Under the three-strikes law, Andrade was sentenced to 50 years to life. Ewing got 25 to life. Without three strikes, both men would have faced maximum terms of about four years in prison.
But the court's ruling is not the last word on the issue. In the eight years since the nation's toughest determinate sentencing law was enacted, opposition to it has grown steadily. Even as other states have passed their own versions of the law excluding nonviolent offenders, California has continued to invoke inordinately long sentences for check-kiters, drug dealers and shoplifters. In writing for the court majority, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor handed the issue back to the state: “This court has a longstanding tradition of deferring to state legislatures in making and implementing such important policy decisions.”
Enter California Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, who is pushing the Legislature to put an initiative on the spring 2004 ballot that would change the law. The L.A. Weekly's SARA CATANIA spoke with Goldberg by phone about her plans.
L.A. WEEKLY: Where does the Supreme Court's ruling leave your efforts to change the three-strikes law?
JACKIE GOLDBERG: When supreme courts rule, they only ä rule on whether something is constitutional or not. They don't rule on whether or not it is good policy. Our goal is to try and make this three-strikes law much more like the three-strikes laws of every other state in the nation. Ours is the only one that makes petty theft, with any prior problems, a felony.
The governor has said that even if this passes, he won't sign it.
We're going to try to convince the governor that he does not have to agree with the position that is going on the ballot to sign it. What he has to do is decide it is up to the people to make this kind of decision. We hope to use evidence of polling that shows that while 65 percent of the people of California support three strikes, 65 percent support changing it. Most people, when they voted for this bill, believed that they voted for three violent strikes, or three really serious felonies. That's what all the polling says.
Are there are any other factors, beyond the excessive sentences, that make three strikes a bad law?
It's going to take about a billion dollars over the next several years to build enough prisons to keep up with three strikes in California, according to the Department of Finance.
You're looking at a time when every poll shows that even the Republicans believe that the Department of Corrections should be cut ahead of education and health and human services. The question becomes how do you cut the Department of Corrections? You can't do it as long as stealing a few golf clubs can put you in jail for the rest of your life.
If you get legislative approval and the governor does agree to put this on the ballot, what kind of a campaign will it take for it to pass?
We'll have to raise serious money. Probably a couple of million dollars at least. But I think that's going to happen, because a lot of people in this state were more or less unaware of this issue and didn't care much about it until we hit a financial crisis. Now states all over the country are looking at who they're putting in jail, how long they're putting them in there and whether it makes the jurisdictions safer.
It's $27,000 a year for an adult in prison. We only pay $6,000 a kid for school. It's about half a billion dollars a year for the 3,000 people right now who are in prison who wouldn't be there if this law were passed. We're talking serious money here.
Right now people's attention is focused on other things: the budget crisis being a major concern. How are you getting your colleagues to focus on this issue?
We're not getting other legislators to focus on this issue very much. We'll get them to focus on it when it comes to the floor. But for people who care about this, it's not too soon to write your legislator and say, give me a chance to vote on this. To say you think there are some corrections that would make this a better law. They should write to everybody who represents them, and they should write to the governor.