Court backs tough laws on molesters, repeat offenders

USA Today, 6 March 2003

By Joan Biskupic, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – For nearly a decade, the Supreme Court sat on the sidelines as states passed “three-strikes” laws punishing repeat offenders, and crafted “Megan’s laws” letting communities know when a sex convict moved in.

But Wednesday, after years of spurning appeals and declining to weigh in, the court endorsed laws of both type. The justices emphasized that states have wide latitude to fight crime and protect public safety.

The rulings in four separate cases buttress the contemporary court’s reputation for strengthening the hand of law enforcement. States praised the rulings, but defendants’ rights advocates said the court was wrongly upholding far-reaching laws passed in the heat of politics and fervor over terrible crimes against children.

“Recidivism is a serious public safety concern in California and throughout the nation,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote as the court upheld California’s “three-strikes” law. The law was passed in 1994 after the slaying of Polly Klaas by a twice-convicted kidnapper in 1993.

The law permits prison sentences of 25 years to life for a third conviction no more serious than petty theft. It has been applied to hundreds of comparatively small-time criminals in California. But O’Connor said that was California’s choice to make. She rejected the claim of Gary Ewing, who was sentenced to 25 years for stealing golf clubs, that the law violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“Though three strikes laws may be relatively new,” she wrote, “our tradition of deferring to state legislatures in making and implementing such important policy decisions is longstanding.”

“The tone is unabashedly deferential,” said David Porter, a lawyer for Ewing. “It seems to me that the Eighth Amendment requires the court to independently evaluate a legislature’s actions.”

Although the five justices in the majority differed in their application of the Eighth Amendment, all five agreed that the ban against cruel and unusual punishment does not stop a state from imposing 25 years to life on minor, but repeat, crooks.

Justices also voted to reject the appeal of Leandro Andrade, who was sentenced to 50 years for stealing nine videotapes. The court did not address the merits of Andrade’s Eighth Amendment claim, but rather – on a threshold question – barred him from making a last-ditch appeal to federal courts.

Referring to the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of grossly disproportionate sentences, Justice David Souter declared in dissent, “If Andrade’s sentence is not grossly disproportionate, the principle has no meaning.” Dissenting in both of the “three-strikes” cases were Souter and Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer praised the court’s approval of the “three-strikes” law. He said it ensures “those who have made a career out of crime are taken off the street for a long time.”

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers denounced all of Wednesday’s rulings. “A majority of the Supreme Court appears to have forgotten that the Constitution was adopted to protect individuals from the excesses of the state,” said its president, Lawrence Goldman.

In the court’s first look at laws that register sex offenders, the justices spurned arguments that states were attempting to impose more punishment on convicts who had served their time. Writing for the majority in a case from Alaska, Anthony Kennedy said the purpose was to inform the public about a convict’s whereabouts, not to add to the individual’s public stigma.

The court rejected arguments that states could not apply such laws to convicts whose crimes were committed before the laws took effect and that they must hold hearings to determine whether a convict is still dangerous before listing him in a registry.

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