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California high court softens 'three strikes' law

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - (This July 11, 2014, story was corrected in paragraph 6 to show courts, not the state, could reconsider cases )

California's highest court has softened implementation of the state's "three-strikes-and-you're-out" criminal sentencing law, marking the second time the rules for identifying and imprisoning career criminals have been loosened in recent years.

The judges made their ruling in the case of a woman who had been charged with two felonies - carjacking and robbery - for the same offense of stealing a car, saying that the legislature and the voters clearly intended for defendants to have three chances to redeem themselves before they are put away for life.

"The voting public would reasonably have understood the 'Three Strikes' baseball metaphor to mean that a person would have three chances - three swings of the bat if you will - before the harshest penalty could be imposed," Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote in the court's opinion, released late on Thursday. "The public also would have understood that no one can be called for two strikes on just one swing."

The law, passed as part of a national wave of tough-on-crime legislation in the 1990s, sets sentences of 25 years to life for defendants convicted of violent crimes who have committed two prior felonies.

The decision comes less than two years after voters modified the law in a ballot initiative in 2012, amending it to require the third strike to be a violent felony. Before that, the law allowed the third strike to be a misdemeanor or certain non-violent felonies, leading to life sentences for such crimes as shoplifting.

Melanie Dorian, the criminal defense lawyer who represented defendant Darlene A. Vargas in the case, said the ruling could lead the courts to reconsider the cases of other inmates convicted of more than one felony for the same act.

"I'm assuming there are plenty of people now in prisons under similar circumstances," Dorian said. For example, she said, someone who punched another person in the face and left a scar might have been prosecuted for both assault and maiming, two felonies that now cannot count as two separate strikes.

The office of California Attorney General, Kamala Harris, which defended the law in court, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the case.

Supporters of the 2012 measure that modified the law argued that filling prisons with people who are not a threat to society is expensive and often works against restoring felons to a crime-free life.

(Editing by Sandra Maler and Eric Walsh)

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