Legislators should fix their own flawed laws

Here’s another example of the state Legislature asking the judiciary to clean up its mess.
Occasionally, courts make decisions on matters best left to lawmakers, and when that case reaches the state Supreme Judicial Court, its ruling takes on added significance.
All of the above occurred recently when the SJC ruled that defendants convicted under one section of the Massachusetts “three strikes’’ law can be placed on probation by a judge, rather than face mandatory, hefty sentences for their third offense.
The high court, after analyzing the law’s wording and legislative history, found it to be ambiguous, and invited legislators to alter it if they wished.
’The decision stems from the third-strike conviction of Ricardo Montarvo, a defendant in a Worcester case who appealed after he was sentenced to 20 years in prison under the statute, arguing that the judge was allowed to impose probation. The SJC vacated his sentence and sent the case back to the Superior Court for sentencing.
We can’t go back and read the minds of the legislators who passed this 2012 law, but we don’t understand why they inserted two similar offender categories with — intentionally or not — two apparently conflicting sentencing guidelines.
Montarvo’s lawyers obviously brought to light the law’s definitions of habitual criminal and habitual offender.
A habitual criminal is defined as someone convicted of a felony after two prior convictions that resulted in state or federal prison sentences of three or more years. That defendant “shall be punished by imprisonment in state prison or state correctional facility for such felony for the maximum term provided by law,’’ though the statute doesn’t explicitly bar probation.
A habitual offender merits that description if convicted of a string of three more serious, generally violent crimes. The section of the law explicitly excludes probation for those “habitual offenders.’’
The court said, quoting a previous opinion, that “when the Legislature intends to bar probation, it knows how to say so explicitly.’’
It invited the Legislature to change the wording. “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,’’ the court said.
Did lawmakers at the time believe they made a sufficient distinction between those two criminal categories, and thus believed it was understood that habitual criminals were eligible to receive probation?
No one knows, but only the Legislature can fix this apparent oversight.
The Supreme Judicial Court recently overturned a 90-year-old Massachusetts law prohibiting panhandlers from seeking money from passing motorists, ruling that the law violated the First Amendment rights of the homeless.
But the judges said the decision doesn’t preclude the Legislature from amending or enacting another law protecting public safety, as long as it doesn’t violate previously protected speech — in this case, panhandling.
It rose to this legal level in part because Attorney General Maura Healey’s office had officially indicated it wouldn’t defend that section of the law because it violated rights of free speech.
And rather than trying to rework the statute, which federal courts had found to be unconstitutional, lawmakers relied on the judiciary to do the legwork.
Maybe three strikes should apply to lazy lawmakers.

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