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Three-strikes law challenged in California

By Sarah Knopp | February 15, 2002 | Page 2

EARNEST BRAY Jr. was charged with petty theft for stealing three videotapes in Los Angeles. And for that, he was thrown into a California prison for 25 years to life.

Bray is one of thousands of people sentenced under California's "three strikes and you're out" law--which requires a mandatory 25-years-to-life term if a defendant is convicted of a third felony, no matter how minor.

But after seven years of injustices since the law went into effect, a federal appeals court last week overturned Bray's sentence and hundreds of others, agreeing that a life sentence for shoplifting is cruel and unusual punishment.

The decision--the second in three months to overturn a three-strikes sentence--will open the way for hundreds of appeals from California prisoners in similar situations. Some 6,400 people have been sentenced under the three-strikes law, which was approved by voters in a ballot referendum in 1994.

The blatant injustice of putting people away for life for petty crimes has provoked criticism and anger. But state officials are ready to fight to keep the three-strikes law. The state attorney general will appeal last week's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. And one lawmaker told the Los Angeles Times, "The court's decision today threatens to put more repeat murderers, robbers, rapists and child molesters back in our neighborhoods."

That disgusting rhetoric shows why the politicians wanted a three-strikes law in the first place. Harsh sentencing laws are a way of diverting attention from the social problems that they cause with their cutbacks--and onto scapegoats whose real "crime" is to live in poverty or have the wrong skin color.

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