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O.C. Judges Hail Change in Their Role

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With quiet satisfaction, judges across Orange County and the state Thursday welcomed back the power to change sentences in “three strikes” cases--a discretion that had been stifled under the 2-year-old law.

“I’ve always felt that judges should have discretion in cases,” Superior Court Judge Luis A. Cardenas, who retired from the bench a few months ago but still hears cases occasionally, said after Thursday’s state Supreme Court ruling. “But some parts of [the “three strikes” law] reduced judges to merely rubber-stamping sentences.”

In Orange County, several local judges had refused prosecutors’ requests to sentence “three strikes” defendants to 25 years to life in prison. The judges noted that some defendants had been charged with minor offenses--stealing food, possessing small amounts of drugs, or other nonviolent crimes.

The Orange County district attorney’s office had filed dozens of appeals, challenging those local judges who reduced third strike felonies to misdemeanors or who tossed out a defendant’s prior convictions to avoid prosecution as a three-time loser.

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One such appeal was against a sentence handed down by Cardenas. Prosecutors asked for a life sentence for 43-year-old Thomas Kiel Brown, who was found guilty of swiping a $22 Mighty Ducks baseball cap from a store in a shopping mall. Brown previously had been convicted of robbery and grand theft, making him eligible for the most severe punishment under the law.

Cardenas reduced the charge to a misdemeanor and gave Brown a one-year prison term.

“No judge I know wants to let dangerous criminals loose in the community,” Cardenas said. “But I’m sure the taxpayer doesn’t want to spend more than $500,000 to put a petty thief in jail for stealing a [cap].”

As some judges rejoiced at Thursday’s ruling, the Orange County district attorney’s office expressed disappointment, describing it as a “serious setback” for the state’s residents who overwhelmingly voted for the law.

Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. E. Thomas Dunn Jr. said voters’ approval of the “three strikes” law had been circumvented because “judges, whom people thought were the problems in the first place, now have the right to dispense the same lenient sentences.”

Dunn said the court’s ruling could result in a flood of requests from felons who want their sentences overturned in light of Thursday’s ruling. In Orange County, up to 300 defendants could ask to be released from prison, Dunn said, although the high court urged trial judges not to reconsider sentences unless they reluctantly imposed the harshest penalties because of the wording of the law.

Still, judges said they did not believe the streets would be abruptly awash in freed convicts.

“The doors to the jails, to the prisons, are not suddenly going to be open,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William R. Pounders said.

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The decision Thursday by the state Supreme Court gives back to judges a tremendous power--the authority to disregard a prior conviction at sentencing “in the furtherance of justice.”

Until Thursday, the law mandated that judges had to impose sentences of at least 25 years to life for any third felony conviction. It also mandated double the usual sentence for a second strike.

Though a third strike can be any felony--such as possession of cocaine--prior convictions must be “serious” or “violent” to qualify as strikes. Such crimes include murder, robbery, kidnapping and burglary.

Traditionally, judges have enjoyed the authority to disregard a prior conviction in a case in which leniency seems appropriate. They lost that authority in strikes cases when the law took effect in 1994; only prosecutors were allowed to erase a strike.

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For the past two years, most judges have chafed at the diminution of their power.

Judge David O. Carter, the supervising criminal court judge in Orange County, said he applauded the court’s ruling that trial judges “should have judicial discretion.”

Carter said he believes some “three strike” cases were too costly for taxpayers. The law’s mandate of 25 years to life meant that some criminals would spend their aging years in prison at taxpayers’ expense, he said.

Many of those already sentenced under the law earned the chance Thursday for a rehearing.

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Bascue said he expects a “tremendous number” of requests for resentencing in the Los Angeles courts. According to the state Department of Corrections, Los Angeles County accounts for about 40% of the second- and third-strikers sent to state prison--7,493 of the 17,077 second-strikers in prison as of April 30, 652 of the 1,655 third-strikers.

Certain convicts will not be entitled to reconsideration.

The high court said that any request for rehearing should be “summarily denied” if a trial judge made it plain at the time of sentencing that he or she had discretion to disregard a strike--but chose not to do so, or said specifically that he or she would not, in any event, move to lighten the sentence.

Around Los Angeles County, several judges--believing that the Supreme Court would rule the way it did--had taken it upon themselves in recent months to go on the record in just such situations.

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Last week, San Fernando Superior Court Judge Meredith C. Taylor was reluctant but firm as she sentenced Lawrence Christopher Olin, 38, to 25 years to life.

An admitted heroin addict, Olin was convicted in December of stealing two pairs of jeans, worth $80, from a Mervyn’s store in Valencia. His prior record included other theft-related offenses.

“Were this court to have discretion, and I do not believe that I have discretion, Mr. Olin, it would tug at my heart not to give you a lower sentence than what you have here,” Taylor said.

“But even though I believe very personally that this is grossly disproportionate, I still would feel compelled to give you the term because of the fact that you have those three or four prior serious felony convictions.”

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Olin responded: “I just wonder, I don’t know. Has the world gotten crazy or is it just me? ‘Cause I don’t think it’s right.”

Anticipating precisely the decision that was issued Thursday, the Los Angeles Superior Court had developed--and passed around last week to judges downtown--what have been labeled “suggested guidelines” for strikes cases.

Each judge still retains discretion to do as he or she sees fit.

But Pounders, who helped draft them, said they are intended to achieve uniformity countywide.

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The guidelines say that a prior conviction should be eliminated in a third strike case only if the defendant is charged with a minor felony and has an “insignificant or distant record beyond [the charged] strikes.”

Times staff writers Ann W. O’Neill, Jim Newton, Henry Weinstein, Greg Krikorian, Miles Corwin and Edward J. Boyer contributed to this story.


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