MA high court: Judges can grant probation on ‘third strike’

AP National News

BOSTON (AP) — The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court says that defendants convicted under the state’s “three strikes” law can be sentenced to probation by a judge in lieu of hefty sentences for their third offense.

The state’s highest court found Tuesday that the law’s wording and legislative history were ambiguous, The Boston Globe reported.

The court cited the “rule of lenity,” saying that in the case of ambiguous wording or legislative intent that could not be determined, the defendant is entitled to the “benefit of any rational doubt.”

In its current form, the “three strikes” law calls for defendants to see enhanced sentencing if they have been convicted of a felony after two prior convictions that resulted in state or federal prison sentences of three or more years.

Under the law, if a person “shall be considered a habitual criminal and shall be punished by imprisonment in state prison or state correctional facility for such felony for the maximum term provided by law.” But it does not specifically bar probation.

The court also point out the difference between the “habitual criminal” section of the law and a separate section of the law that applies to “habitual offenders.” The law bars “habitual offenders” — who have been convicted of a string of three more serious, generally violent crimes — from probation.

The court invited the legislature to change the law if it saw fit. “Should the Legislature decide to do so, it may amend (the section of the law) to bar a judge from imposing probation. It need not look far for how to accomplish this goal.”

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