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The Consequences of Excessive Leniency

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Aside from the death penalty, there is probably no criminal sentencing law in the United States more reviled by those who fancy themselves "enlightened" than California's three strikes law.  The Los Angeles Times today has this article by Richard Winton and Jack Leonard, headlined "Multiple murder suspect had benefited from three-strikes leniency."

To hear him tell his story, John Wesley Ewell was the victim of an overly harsh criminal justice system.

The South Los Angeles hairstylist complained to journalists over the last decade about the unfairness of the state's tough three-strikes law, saying he lived in fear that even a small offense would land him back in prison for life.

He even appeared on the "The Montel Williams Show" to argue the case against three strikes. A caption that flashed on the screen when Ewell spoke read: "Afraid to leave his house because he has 2 'Strikes.'"

But Ewell is now charged with murdering four people in a series of home invasion robberies that terrorized the South Bay this fall. On Tuesday, he pleaded not guilty during a brief appearance at the Airport Courthouse.

Far from embodying the severity of the justice system, Ewell benefited from its lenience over the last 16 years, according to a Times review of court records and interviews.

Ewell has a lengthy criminal history that includes two robbery convictions from the 1980s. Nevertheless, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office decided on four occasions against seeking to use the full weight of the three-strikes law when he was charged with new crimes.

And this year, after Ewell was arrested three times for allegedly stealing from Home Depot stores, a judge agreed to delay sending Ewell to prison so he could take care of some medical problems.

It was during that delay, authorities say, that Ewell robbed three homes and killed the victims.

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The prosecutor's use of discretion to not invoke the "3 strikes" law is one issue.

Allowing him to remain on bond after pleading guilty to the reduced charges on September 14 is indefensible.

Prison doctors could have just as easily performed "minor eye surgery."

The irony of this case is enhanced by the Supreme Court argument the day before in Plata, which included discussion of the recidivist risk of releasing thousands of prison inmates.

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