Adjusting 'Three Strikes' Law

Voters in California will have the opportunity this fall to recalibrate their tough sentencing statute for repeat offenders, known as the "three strikes" law. They should take it.

About half of the states have such laws, and the intent of California's remains valid: to keep violent career criminals in prison. But the provision of the law that allows a life sentence or long prison term for minor third crimes must be adjusted.

Hundreds of repeat offenders in the state are serving life sentences for minor third crimes, such as shoplifting. Last year, the US Supreme Court ruled on two showcase examples: a previously convicted man sentenced to 50 years for stealing videos, and another repeat offender sentenced to 25 years to life for stealing golf clubs.

The court held that the sentences did not violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, given the history of the felons' previous crimes. But it defers to the states on the issue of sentencing standards.

The ballot initiative would require that a person be convicted of a serious or violent felony to qualify for a third-strike sentence of 25 years to life.

Opponents say the initiative could free more than 20,000 three-strikes prisoners, many of whom are dangerous and deserve to be locked up. Critics of the measure are concerned that California's crime rate, which has been halved in the 10 years since the law took effect, would go up.

But a reversal of the crime rate is not a foregone conclusion. In 24 states that don't have a three-strikes law, crime has actually dropped further than in California.

The initiative's retroactive impact needs a closer examination, but the principle that the punishment should fit the crime seems reason enough to support this change.

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