LOS ANGELES - In arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California is urging the Justices to invalidate a California man's life sentence under the state's harsh 'three strikes' law for stealing $153 worth of children's videotapes, including Snow White and Free Willy.
'It is completely irrational to put someone in prison for life for shoplifting,' said Erwin Chemerinsky, a University of Southern California law professor who is arguing the case on behalf of his client, Leandro Andrade. The ACLU's California affiliates and the national office are serving as co-counsel.
'This is a man who never committed a violent crime,' Chemerinsky said of his client. 'At worst he might try to steal 'Snow White' again.'
The case, Lockyer v. Andrade, 01-1127, is the first Supreme Court challenge to the application of what has come to be known as the 'three strikes' law. Andrade will be argued in tandem with another case, Ewing v. California, 01-6978, in which Gary Ewing received 25 years to life for stealing $1,200 worth of golf clubs.
Passed in 1994, California's law - the harshest of its kind in the nation - requires a prison term of 25 years to life for anyone convicted of a third felony after two previous serious or violent felony convictions. But Andrade and Ewing, as well as hundreds of others, are nonviolent criminals whose previous sentences were for burglary and petty theft. California is the only state in the country that allows such stiff punishment for a minor, non-violent 'third strike.'
Today's argument focuses on whether a potential life sentence for petty theft under 'three strikes' law constitutes 'cruel and unusual' punishment.
In November 2001, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Andrade's 50-year sentence, agreeing with his claim that it was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the federal Constitution's Eighth Amendment.
In its ruling, the Ninth Circuit majority said Andrade's sentence was 'grossly disproportionate to his two misdemeanor offenses, even when we consider his history of non-violent offenses.'
Consistent with the Ninth Circuit's ruling, Chemerinsky noted that the case before the Supreme Court does not address the three strikes law in general, but only as applied to Andrade's case, where a conviction for petty theft led to a life sentence with a possibility of parole after a minimum of 50 years.
'This is a clearly a case of cruel and unique punishment,' said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director for the ACLU of Southern California. 'California spends more money on keeping an inmate in prison each year than it does to educate a student at one of the University of California campuses. To spend tens of thousands of dollars to keep a person in jail until he's 87 years old for stealing a few videotapes is not only cruel but senseless as well.'
A recent report by the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based policy group, concludes that the 'three strikes' law has not contributed to the reduction of crime in California to any significant extent -- contrary to the claims of the law's supporters. The study also shows that California's "three strikes" law has increased the number and severity of sentences for nonviolent offenders, who now make up two-thirds of the state's second and third "strike" sentences.
'Thirteen family members of three strikes prisoners traveled from California to Washington, D.C. to demonstrate that the law is profoundly cruel and unusual and has cast a net so wide that close to 4,000 petty offenders are serving life sentences under its provisions,' said Geri Silva, state co-chair of Families to Amend California's Three Strikes (FACTS). 'FACTS has declared its intention to qualify an initiative for the November 2004 ballot and sees the Andrade and Ewing cases as milestones in our six year long fight to amend the three strikes law so that it targets violent felonies only.'
Attorneys in the case are Erwin Chemerinsky of the Univ. of Southern California Law School; Steve Shapiro of the national ACLU; Mark D. Rosenbaum and Daniel P. Tokaji of the ACLU of Southern California; Alan L. Schlosser of the ACLU of Northern California; Jordan C. Budd of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties; and volunteer attorney Paul Hoffman of Schonbrun, DeSimone, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman of Venice, CA.
FACTS is a statewide organization that includes 18 chapters. It is composed of family members and allies dedicated to ending California's cruel and unusual 3 strikes law through legal, legislative and electoral means.
The American Civil Liberties Union is the nation's foremost advocate of individual rights and equal justice, and leading guardian against unwarranted government interference and abuse. Since 1920, the mission of the ACLU has been to preserve the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights.