In a ruling that may affect an estimated 16,000 inmates, the California Supreme Court decided that judges are not required to impose mandatory prison sentences of 25 years to life on repeat offenders if they feel such a sentence is overly cruel.
The unanimous decision, which has drawn praise from many civil libertarians and harsh criticism from Governor Pete Wilson, is retroactive and could potentially reduce the sentences of individuals who were given stiffer prison terms under the 1994 "three strikes" law.
"The mindless and inexorable demand for a life sentence for minor offenses has become a bit more mindful," said Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
"Because this decision was unanimous and from a conservative court, other courts [across the nation] may look to this opinion as challenges arise to their own laws," added Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.
The court's decision stemmed from a San Diego case in which a repeat offender was charged with possessing a small amount of cocaine. Feeling that the mandatory sentence was an unfit punishment for the crime, the judge moved to strike the defendant's previous convictions so he could plea bargain. The prosecutor in the case objected, maintaining that under the "three strikes" legislation, the judge lacked the right.
The ruling maintained that denying judges their traditional discretion over sentencing violates the separation of powers guaranteed in the state Constitution. The court asserted that their decision did not spell the end of "three strikes" law, but merely returned the customary power of judicial discretion back to the judges.
Following the court's decision, Gov. Wilson -- an ardent proponent of mandatory sentencing -- pledged to find a way to bypass the court's ruling with either a referendum or by introducing similar legislation. However, legal scholars believe that the court will strike these measures down as well.
"Those who repeatedly assault our citizens ... must pay a sever price for their crimes," Wilson said. "I intend to keep faith with the people of California who have every right to demand protection against career criminals and predators."
For more information, please contact Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums @ (202) 457-5790 or Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation @ (202) 835-9075.