Handcuffing Career criminals.(COMMENTARY)

Article excerpt


To borrow from Winston Churchill's gripping cadences over the Battle of Britain, never have so many misfits owed so much to the few on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The proof rests on Andrade vs. Attorney General of the State of California (Nov. 2, 2001), in which the court brandished the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of "cruel and unusual" punishments to frustrate California's "Three Strikes and Your Out Law" as applied to career criminal Leandro Andrade.

Andrade would have graduated summa cum laude from Fagin's school of thieves in "Oliver Twist." In 1982, he was convicted of misdemeanor theft.

Released on probation, he burglarized three separate residences in 1983, all felonies. In 1990, he was convicted for a second misdemeanor theft. Five years later, he was convicted of two separate shoplifting offenses, which were raised from misdemeanors to felonies because of Andrade's crime history.

The probation report for the latter felonies confirmed Andrade's incorrigibility. It recites, in addition to the seven offenses previously enumerated, federal convictions for transporting marijuana, dismissal of seven state burglary charges, and a parole violation for escape from a federal prison. The report further noted Andrade's acknowledged heroin addiction, confession that he steals to support his drug habit, and no career change to even evanescent lawful endeavors.

We know little about the platitudinous "root" causes of crime.

Thousands of years of civilization has yielded no generally successful rehabilitation strategy for criminals, whether guilty of drug violations or other offenses. But we know much about recidivists like Andrade: namely, that the likelihood of renewed criminality if returned to our streets and neighborhoods is frighteningly high, probably 50 percent or more. That knowledge, combined with indulgent or pollyannaish judges, gave birth to stiff career criminal sentencing laws over the past decade.

In 1994, California enacted both by statute and ballot initiative a "Three Strikes" rule. It emerged not from revenge or retribution, but as a pis-aller, as a last desperate effort to discover a sentencing scheme that would cap or plunge a seemingly intractable spiraling of crime. And the "Three Strikes" law worked for twofold reasons: Career criminals commit the lion's share of crime; and, whatever else may be said of incarceration, the criminally incorrigible are not committing additional crimes while imprisoned.

Thus, crime rates in California and in sister states with first-cousin "Three Strikes" laws tumbled for a decade, and then stabilized over the last year. Record levels in prison populations were matched by record successes in attacking crime.

Andrade, in particular, deserved central casting for California's "Three Strikes" law. …