When Governor Patrick signed a three-strikes bill without a judicial safety net, the measure became among the worst in the country. Even California’s three-strikes bill authorized judicial discretion; the judge could decide whether the prior crime should qualify as a “strike,” triggering the onerous sentence. And even with this safety valve, the bill was responsible for the worst prison overcrowding in California history.
True, the legislative conference committee members have labored to restrict the categories of crimes that would qualify for maximum sentences without parole — for which they deserve enormous credit. The ones remaining sound serious — unless one understands how these crimes are charged. A defendant can be convicted of armed robbery, for example, if he says he has a weapon, even if no weapon was shown or found, or even if he has a fake gun. Manslaughter can be excessive force in self defense. Assault and battery causing “serious” bodily injury may mean one thing to one prosecutor, another thing to a different one.