Tough crime laws OK’d

USA Today, 6 March 2003

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court upheld the nation’s toughest “three strikes” law Wednesday, and separately approved public registries of convicted sex offenders mandated under Megan’s laws.

By Joan Biskupic, USA TODAY

In four separate rulings and by varying votes, justices reinforced the wide latitude states have to fight crime. They also endorsed two fairly new weapons against repeat criminals and child predators.

Wednesday’s rulings revealed the court’s deep ideological split.

Justices voted 5-4 in two three-strikes cases to affirm a 25-year sentence for a man who stole golf clubs and a 50-year sentence for a man who shoplifted videotapes.

In a forceful opinion by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the court said states rightly have decided that repeat offenders “must be isolated from society … to protect the public safety,” even when crimes that are not serious or violent trigger the lengthy sentence.

California’s three-strikes law is unusually severe in allowing minor crimes to constitute a third strike and set off at least 25 years in prison. Half of all states have their own variations of three strikes.

Reading parts of her opinion from the bench, O’Connor said that although Gary Ewing’s sentence for stealing golf clubs is long, so is his record. Ewing previously was convicted of burglary and robbery.

Justice Stephen Breyer took the unusual step of reading aloud parts of the dissent. Noting that the clubs taken from a pro shop at the El Segundo golf course cost $1,197, Breyer said the court should have found the sentence “grossly disproportionate” to the crime and in violation of the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Breyer was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter.

In a similar 5-4 vote, the court rejected a last-ditch appeal by Leandro Andrade, who was sentenced under “three-strikes” to 50 years in prison for stealing videotapes from two Kmart stores.

Also Wednesday, justices voted 9-0 to reject a challenge to a Connecticut version of Megan’s law that puts out convicts’ names without first determining whether they are still dangerous.

They ruled 6-3 in an Alaska case that states can demand registration of sex offenders whose crimes were committed before the law was passed.

Megan’s laws generally require freed sex offenders to give authorities their addresses and places of employment. The information is available on the Internet or elsewhere, so communities know when a convict is in their midst.

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