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Nation's Toughest Three-Strike Law Being Reassessed

California adopted it readily last March, but some see it clogging courts even as crime falls

CALIFORNIA'S sweeping new ``three-strikes'' law, the toughest in the nation, is spurring quiet changes and noisy protests six months after going into effect.

Proponents of the controversial statute mandating tough prison terms for repeat offenders already see some evidence that it is deterring crime. But critics - and even a few supporters - complain that it is clogging courts, ratcheting up prosecution costs, and producing overly harsh sentences for minor offenses.

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The perceptions are important, for even though California already has a three-strikes law, an initiative on the November ballot seeks to duplicate the statute. The aim is to make it tamperproof.

If the initiative passes, it will be almost impossible for lawmakers to change it. Some are already trying. Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says: ``What the governor and legislature wiggled into, the governor and legislature can wiggle out of.''

Passage would also add momentum to the three-strikes-and-you're-out movement nationwide. At least 30 states have already passed or are considering such laws, and the recently passed federal crime bill includes a three-strikes provision.

Few, however, go as far as California's. The law doubles maximum sentences for a second felony conviction and invokes life sentences for a third. Any felony, no matter how small, can be considered a ``third strike.''

Some states require that the third offense be a serious or violent crime. When signed into law March 7 by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, the California statute was touted as the answer to stopping repeat criminals. It was fashioned amid a frisson of concern about crime spurred, in large measure, by last year's kidnapping and murder of Polly Klass, a 12-year-old Petaluma girl.

Proponents say the law will have a major impact in curbing violence; some see evidence that it already has. They point to recent statements by Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, a sometime critic of the three-strikes law, that it might be one of the factors behind a drop in crime this year in his jurisdiction. Others say the law is driving up court costs, because suspects facing life or some other stiff jail term now have little incentive not to go to trial. Thus, there are fewer plea bargains. In Sacramento County, the District Attorney's Office estimates it may need 10 more lawyers and a $2 million budget increase to deal with the expected increase in criminal trials.

In Los Angeles County, District Attorney Gil Garcetti, who supports a more narrowly focused three-strikes law, says his office has filed more than 6,000 ``strike'' cases in the past five months. The result, he complains, is that ``we're grossly understaffed and underfinanced.''

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Twice in the past few months, two civil courts in L.A. County have been temporarily shut down to handle an overflow of criminal cases. By law, criminal trials take precedence over civil trials.

Superior Court Judge Lance Ito, who ordered the closures, attributes part of the overload to an increase in three-strikes cases, though others note that the courts have been shut down to handle criminal cases in the past.

Others fault the law for not differentiating between crimes that greatly threaten society and less serious ones. Their concern is that a person might end up with 25 years to life for snatching a purse, just because it happened to be his ``third strike.''

SOME judges chafe under the law's mandates. One in Santa Rosa, Calif., for instance, recently sentenced a man to a year in jail after he pleaded no contest to possessing a small amount of marijuana. Because it was his second felony, the man should have, under the three-strikes law, drawn more time - up to eight years. But Superior Court Judge Lawrence Antolini ruled the California law unconstitutional, arguing that such a sentence would have been ``cruel and unusual punishment.'' Prosecutors plan to appeal the ruling.

Three-strike supporters counter that in many cases, even if the third strike seems minor, the criminal often has a history of violent or serious crime that warrants the life sentence. If the individual doesn't, they note that the law gives district attorneys the discretion to exclude marginal criminals from three-strikes prosecution and allows prior felonies to be stricken under certain circumstances.

How the law is being applied varies from county to county, raising concerns of unequal justice. Some prosecutors bring virtually every three-strikes case they can, while others are more lenient. ``I think the district attorneys have got to develop some sort of uniformity in how they are going to apply this thing,'' says Gene Tunney, the district attorney in Sonoma County.

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