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Softer Three-Strikes Law Brings Wave of Appeals

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Fay Arfa, a long-time criminal attorney here, is readying a petition asking a Superior Court judge to reconsider the 25-years-to-life sentence slapped on her client last December. Her client's crime: stealing five bottles of liquor from a supermarket.

"I believe that no one in that trial courtroom felt that such a severe sentence was justifiable," Ms. Arfa says. "But because it was my client's third offense, the judge had no choice."

Whether the judge will honor Arfa's request is a question hanging over thousands of similar cases as California begins to grapple with the consequences of a June 20 ruling by the California State Supreme Court, which eased sentencing constraints under the nation's first "three-strikes" law.

The unanimous decision returns to judges the authority to disregard a defendant's prior convictions if they thought a mandatory prison sentence would be too harsh.

The ruling takes some of the teeth out of a three-strikes sentencing law that is considered the toughest in the country. It may also slow the adoption of similar laws in other states - and perhaps influence how aggressively such statutes are applied in states that already have them.

Victims-rights activists and state Republican leaders - including Gov. Pete Wilson, who signed the legislation in March 1994 - have condemned the Supreme Court action and have promised amendments that would restore tougher mandates. They contend that since the law was enacted, crime in California has dropped.

"We cannot tolerate a situation which permits judges who are philosophically unsympathetic ... to reduce the strong sentences that the voters intended to impose on habitual criminals," Governor Wilson says.

But critics, who charge that prisons are overcrowded and dockets clogged as a result of the law, say the court has rightfully restored power to judges.

"The California State Supreme Court has restored some balance and rightful discretion to judges in determining an appropriate sentence for someone who has committed a third felony that is in no way violent," says Robert Pugsley, law professor at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles.

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