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Three-strike law provokes judges to rebel

A REBELLION is unfolding among judges in California over the state's 'three-strikes- you're-out' laws, the toughest anti-crime legislation of its kind in the United States.

In a growing number of cases, judges are refusing to implement, or are seeking to by-pass, the draconian new measures because they believe they result in unreasonable jail terms and remove their right to exercise discretion.

Under the laws, people convicted of two serious or violent crimes face a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life if they are found guilty of a third offence of any kind. Someone with two robbery convictions committed 10 years previously can therefore be jailed for life for a relatively trivial offence - say, bouncing a cheque for a few hundred dollars. The law also contains a 'two-strikes' provision - doubling prison terms for second offences.

The legislation was passed in March amid a public outcry about lenient treatment of repeat offenders, which reached a climax over the abduction and murder of a 12- year-old girl whose killer was on parole with a record of violent crime. Dozens of other states have similar laws, or are planning to introduce them.

In California, however, one judge has described them as a 'piece of junk', and others have reduced defendants' serious crimes to lesser misdeamours to circumvent the new law.

The latest example concerns Jeffrey Missamore, who faces up to eight years in jail for possessing a small amount of marijuana in an open prison, because of a previous conviction for stealing a video recorder 10 years ago.

The judge, Lawrence Antolini, describes himself as 'not exactly a flaming liberal'. But in this case, he ruled the long mandatory prison sentence would violate US constitutional protection against 'cruel and unusual punishment'. He indicated that he intends to send Missamore to jail for a year. Prosecutors say they will appeal against the sentence.

The case is by no means unique. In San Diego, a judge refused to sentence a man to life for stealing a can of beer - and instead ordered his two prior convictions for more serious crimes to be dropped.

As the judicial revolt grows, it seems inevitable that the laws will be challenged in the US Supreme Court. In the meantime, Judge Antolini predicts California will go bankrupt - its coffers stripped bare by the cost of building jails.