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Supreme Court Ruling Highlights California Prisons

Date Posted to Site: 01/23/2007

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- The U.S. Supreme Court's decision striking down California's criminal sentencing rules may cause disruptions, but it could be a blessing in disguise as the state grapples with severely overcrowded prisons.

The high court made clear Monday that juries, not judges, must determine facts that justify harsher prison sentences. That means about 10,000 of 173,000 California inmates are eligible for reduced terms.

The 6-3 decision comes as federal courts in Sacramento, Oakland and San Francisco are considering ordering a reduction in the number of prisoners who are being warehoused in what inmate advocates say are deplorable and unconstitutional conditions.

The state prison system is 70 percent over capacity, and Monday's decision forces California's government to re-examine its sentencing rules, which are the strictest in the nation. Some inmates, under the three strikes law, are serving life terms for petty crimes, such as shoplifting.

"It does raise the salience and importance of the way sentences are handed out and what those sentences are," Attorney General Jerry Brown said of the justices' ruling. "It certainly is calling attention to the issue of sentencing, and that might well move higher up on the legislative scale the priority of sentencing reform."

Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero said "this is a perfect opportunity to launch that discussion. For all intents and purposes, the Supreme Court is telling us we have to do it anyway."

Romero said the court's decision - in the case Cunningham v. California - makes it more urgent for lawmakers to adopt a bill she proposed last week creating a sentencing commission to review sentences and make changes.

The case concerned Richmond police officer John Cunningham, who was sentenced to the maximum 16 years imprisonment for sexually abusing his son. State law instructs judges to sentence inmates to the middle of three options - in this case, 12 years - unless factors that did not go before the jury exist to justify a shorter or longer prison term.

The justices said such a sentencing scheme violates defendants' rights to be tried before a jury.

Cunningham got the maximum because the sentencing judge said there were several aggravating circumstances to the crime, including the defendant threatening the victim to try to make him recant.

In defending its law, the state warned that its criminal justice system would be burdened by having to re-sentence thousands of inmates. There were just under a quarter-million felony convictions in the state in 2005.

"This moves sentencing reform to the front burner in California," said Gerald Uelmen, executive director of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.

The state could increase jurors' roles by expanding the use of two-step trials in which a jury first determines guilt, then settles on a sentence.

Another option for the state would be to scrap its Determinate Sentencing Law, which was enacted in part to bring uniformity to sentences.

Nine other states, including Illinois and Texas, urged the court in vain to uphold the California law.

Assemblyman Todd Spitzer said both legislative chambers should convene a conference committee "to deal with prison overcrowding." Failing to act makes it more likely the federal courts will order the release of prisoners, Spitzer said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said any changes would be handled with care: "I support longer sentences for criminals who deserve them," he said. "As governor, I will work to ensure that this decision will not be a threat to public safety."

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