WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld long sentences meted out under the nation's toughest three-time offender law, ruling that a prison term of 25 years to life is not too harsh for a small-time thief who shoplifted golf clubs.
California's three-strikes-and-you're-out law does not necessarily lead to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment, the court said, even though a relatively minor crime can yield a life term if the criminal has a felony record.
The court divided 5-4 in two cases testing the limits of California's Proposition 184, intended to close the revolving prison door for criminals with lengthy, violent records.
Twenty-six states and the federal government have some version of a three-strikes law, which typically allow a life prison term or something close to it for a person convicted of a third felony.
Wednesday's ruling addressed only the effects of the California law. But the high court's reasoning will likely shield other three-strikes laws from similar constitutional challenges.
The court noted the popularity of such laws and the public fears behind them. State legislatures should have leeway to keep career criminals away from the public, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the majority.