|http://www.sina.com.cn 2003/03/21 10:32 北京青年报|
If you were a judge, how would you punish a man whose crime was the theft of three golf clubs? Or a man whose crime was stealing a few videotapes from the local supermarket? With a stern warning? A fine? Mandatory community service? Perhaps even a short jail term? Or maybe some combination of the above? Well, California judges recently handed
down prison terms of 25 and 50 years, respectively, for two men who were convicted of just these crimes, and the US Supreme Court, in an important 5 to 4 decision earlier this month, supported the right of the judge to do so. How did this happen?
In 1994, California adopted, through both its legisla-ture and a popular referendum,
what it called a "three strikes law", designed to reduce violent crime. The three strikes law takes its name from the sport of baseball. When a pitcher throws a good pitch that the batter is unable to hit, it's called a "strike"; if the pitcher can throw three strikes, the batter "strikes out" and has to leave the field until his next turn. California's three strikes law mandates a life sen-tence, with no possibility of parole for at least 25 years, for a third felony conviction - regardless of how "light" the third crime might actually be. Twenty-five US states have enacted three strikes legislation since the 1990s, but Cali-fornia's law is considered the toughest, as the third felony does not have to be violent or serious to trigger the heavy mandatory prison sentence. (Most states that have this kind of law require that the third offense be a violent or at least serious, felony.) Today over 7,000 California prisoners are serving terms of at least 25 years under this law, of whom 650 are serving terms for possession of small amounts of drugs and 344 are in for petty theft (e.g., crimes similar to those noted above).
The plaintiffs had sought to challenge the law as a vio-lation of the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution, which prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment". To put it simply, they maintained that the punishments in these and similar cases were far too heavy for the crimes.
The US Supreme Court struck down this argument, but it was certainly not unanimous in its decision: the vote was 5 to 4. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who visited China last fall, voted to uphold the California law, explaining, "To be sure, [the] sentence is a long one, but it reflects a rational legislative judgement, entitled to deference, that offenders who have committed serious or violent felonies and who continue to commit felonies must be incapacitated." In other words, O'Connor and the other justices who sup-ported the California law felt that the states have the author-ity to decide for themselves how to punish repeat offenders. In this case, O'Connor wrote, the long sentence could be justified because of the criminal's "long history of recidivism", which included three burglaries and a robbery. Two justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, agreed with O'Connor's position on the case, but made the different argument that the term "cruel and unusual punishment" ap-plies to types of punishments, not length of prison terms. Scalia said that since there is no objective way to measure the proportionality of sentencing, the state (in this case, Cali-fornia), through its legislature, should have the latitude to decide the sentencing for itself.
The four justices who opposed the decision character-ized the sentences as "grossly disproportionate" to the crimes. Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out that criminals guilty of murder and other violent offenses in California have often served far shorter prison terms than these two men are serving for much less serious crimes. Moreover, the 25-year sentence handed down for stealing the three golf clubs is two or three times longer than the sentence that most other states would have imposed, given similar circumstances. The influential WashingtonPost, for its part, blasted three strikes sentencing as "barbaric". Clearly the Court's decision did not end the debate about three strikes; on the contrary, it deepened it.
Statistics suggest that the three strikes law has helped reduce crime in California. Still, there is growing concern that California's prisons are beginning to fill up with minor offenders. Be that as it may, the Supreme Court's support for the California law, albeit by this slim margin, probably immunizes the law from future court challenges - at least for a long time to come. The Supreme Court advised oppo-nents of the measure to take the issue up with the state leg-islatures. Given the "tough on crime" sentiment so preva-lent in the 25 states that already have three strikes laws on the books, however, it seems unlikely that the trend toward three strikes will be reversed anytime soon. For now, at least, the opponents of harsh sentencing seem to have struck out.
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