Case of soup-kitchen thief fuels critics of three-strikes laws

A California man sentenced to 25 years to life was released Monday because a judge ruled his sentence under a three-strikes law was too harsh for his crime – breaking into a church soup kitchen 13 years ago.

Anne Cusack, Pool/AP Photo
From left, Stanford law school students Gabriel Martinez and Reiko Rogozen listen with Gregory Taylor as he wipes away tears during a hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court Aug. 16. A judge on Monday ordered the release of Taylor, a man serving a potential life sentence for stealing food from a Los Angeles church, a result of California's three-strikes law.

Critics of "three-strikes" laws are hoping that the release Monday of Gregory Taylor – serving a near life sentence for breaking into a soup kitchen 13 years ago – will provide momentum to efforts to repeal or modify the laws in the 25 states that have them.

Mr. Taylor is one of 14 California inmates who have been resentenced as a result of work by students at the Three Strikes Project, part of Stanford University Law School's Criminal Defense Clinic.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza said Taylor’s sentence was one of many third-conviction cases that brought “disproportionate” sentences and “resulted in, if not unintended, then at least unanticipated, consequences.”

In a political environment where being perceived as soft on crime can destroy a candidate's chances at election, “anyone proposing a loosening of the three-strikes law will need to proceed with caution,” says Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School. Efforts to amend the law have failed before.

But stories like Taylor’s are useful in illustrating the problems behind the law's implementation, says Ms. Levinson. The challenge for critics will be trying to prove that society does not benefit from decades-long or even life sentences for nonviolent – or at least not serious – crimes.

“Politically, putting a human face on the potential unintended consequences of the law is a smart move for a group or person wishing to change the current law,” she adds.

Three-strikes laws have been effective in reducing the crime rate, say supporters. Critics overemphasize cases like Taylor's, which are the exception, they argue.

Most criminologists do not deny that "higher incarceration rates played a significant role in producing the crime drop that began in the early 1990s," says Lawrence Rosenthal of Chapman University School of Law. But cases like Taylor's have led to "an emerging consensus that these laws need to be rethought,” he adds.

Kelly Welch is one of those criminologists. The Villanova University criminal justice professor says now is "absolutely the time" to reconsider three-strikes laws, because they have been in place for years and "we have the benefit of being able to evaluate their merit.”

“The truth is, we now have ample evidence that there are far too many cases like that of Gregory Taylor, whose offenses just did not meet the criteria of the original law,” says Welch. “Three-strikes laws were meant to serve as a deterrent for future criminality, but ... criminological research shows very little support that deterrence even works. Thus, three-strikes laws don't work.”

Others argue that three-strikes laws have been effective, if expensive.

The prison population in America has increased about five-fold since the 1960s, with the big jump coming after Ronald Reagan took office, points out Joel Jacobsen, assistant attorney general of New Mexico's criminal appeals division.

“Has that contributed to reduced crime rates? I think almost certainly," he says. "If you lock up 100,000 people, and 20,000 of them are actually dangerous, you've gotten 20,000 dangerous people off the streets,” says Jacobsen. “But it's also cruel and expensive.”

He says restricting the three-strikes law to violent crimes would “prevent a lot of injustice.”

But “it's important to remember that people convicted of nonviolent crimes aren't necessarily nonviolent criminals," he adds. "It may be only that they were never caught for their violent crimes, or that no one was home or awake when they broke into the homes.”

Indeed, support for three-strikes laws remains strong. Says Professor Rosenthal: “Even Democrats see great political risks in moderating these laws.”

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