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California's Strike Zone

The Supreme Court's 5-to-4 decision this week upholding California's "three-strikes" law marks an important milestone in the nation's criminal-justice system. But it should not be the end of the discussion.

About half the states have similar laws. But the Golden State's is the toughest: It allows a life sentence or long prison term for a third felony conviction, even if the crime was not serious or violent - as long as the first two convictions were for serious and violent crimes.

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The California law has swept up hundreds who are serving long sentences for minor third offenses. In the cases the high court considered, a man was sentenced to 50 years to life for shoplifting videos worth $153. Another man received 25 years to life for stealing golf clubs worth $1,200.

Both men had a series of convictions for prior serious crimes. The court held that such sentences do not violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Some justices noted the amendment deals with the type of punishment, not its duration. The court also deferred, properly, to the state legislature, as the court usually does in policy matters such as sentencing standards.

The proper target of criticism in these cases is lawmakers in Sacramento. That's where opponents of the law should now focus their efforts.

The law's aim to promote safety by getting career criminals off the streets - particularly violent ones - is worthy. But California's law, while meeting constitutional muster, still goes too far in punishing petty crimes and drug offenses, driving up prison costs and raising questions of fairness.

Years of judicial leniency, light sentences, and easy parole fed the public reaction that resulted in three-strikes laws. But while rightly protecting public safety, America's justice system must regain its desire to rehabilitate offenders.

Surely society can handle both.


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