Courthouse Split Over ‘3 Strikes’ Decision
Word of the state Supreme Court decision allowing judges to reject lengthy jail terms for “three strikes” defendants rippled through the Ventura County courthouse Thursday faster than a guilty verdict in a high-profile murder case.
Local judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys split sharply on the ruling, with some attorneys praising the landmark decision and others complaining that dangerous convicts could now be set free too soon.
Superior Court Judge Steven Z. Perren said he supports any decision that allows judges to do their duty unencumbered by legislation dictating mandatory sentences.
“The courts are in the business of doing justice for the community, and doing justice on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “Judges should always have discretion to do the just and proper thing.
“Any law that disables a judge from deciding a given case upon its own merits is suspect,” he said. “I don’t think the Legislature can legislate every circumstance.”
Perren said he doubts the decision will trigger appeals in Ventura County because there have been so few convictions locally under the “three strikes” law. To date, there have been 19 local convictions under the law.
The unanimous ruling also pleased defense attorney George C. Eskin, a former Ventura County prosecutor.
“This decision goes in the direction of restoring to judges the power to do the job for which they were selected,” Eskin said. “Removing discretion from judges and giving it all to the prosecutors has been a huge societal mistake.
“It’s moved us toward a police state,” he said.
Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury, who has filed 41 “three strikes” cases since the law took effect more than two years ago, declined to discuss the unanimous court ruling Thursday.
But Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Ronald C. Janes said the decision could thwart the ability of prosecutors to lock up some criminals for long sentences.
“I’m deeply disappointed with the opinion,” Janes said. “It essentially guts the ‘three strikes’ law.
“This was a law that made a sentence dependent on the prior behavior of the defendant,” Janes said. “Unfortunately, what’s going to happen now is that judges will have discretion about striking strikes.”
That discretion could spell more plea bargains and shorter jail terms for violent offenders, Janes said.
“As the caseload goes up with a finite number of judges, occasionally there is a tendency to offer to strike a strike in order to get a plea,” he said.
Janes argued that when prosecutors have charged repeat offenders under the “three strikes” law, they are simply following the will of a majority of voters, who affirmed the March 1994 law the following November.
He also credited the tough sentencing law with helping to reduce the crime rate across California.
“You’re talking about a small group of people who are committing most of the crimes,” Janes said. “As those people are being removed from circulation, the number of crimes is dropping.”
Janes said prosecutors only charge defendants under the “three strikes” law when they have shown a tendency toward violent or repeat criminal behavior.
Bradbury himself decides whether to seek a third strike against any particular defendant.
“We’ve had around 30 cases where we could have filed ‘three strikes’ and didn’t,” Janes said. “We follow a very careful practice of evaluating each defendant’s background and the facts of each case.”
Sheriff’s Department officials also greeted the court ruling with skepticism and concern.
Lt. Bruce Hansen praised Ventura County judges for routinely dispensing sound justice. But he said some deputies are frustrated over what they see as a trend toward leniency in the court system.
“There’s kind of a feeling of frustration,” Hansen said. “Many police officers have felt that the level of sentencing may not have been what it should have been.”
Public Defender Kenneth I. Claymann was out of town, but Assistant Public Defender Jean Farley said the high court made the proper ruling.
The decision ensures that district attorneys across California do not abuse their authority, she said.
“It’s not so much a limitation on prosecutorial power, it’s really more of a balance,” Farley said. “It’s a method that can be used to make sure there isn’t any abuse of the power.
“The judicial power is all that remains to keep the system honest,” she said.
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