Law Blog

Three Strikes and It’s Life

The Washington Supreme Court just recently decided State v. Moretti, which was consolidated with 2 other cases. The cases asked if it was constitutional, under Washington law, for a person to be sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole, if they commit a third “most serious offense” (i.e. a “third strike”) in their 30’s and 40’s, when their first convictions were committed as young adults. The court answered “Yes”, it is constitutional.

In Mr. Moretti’s case, his first conviction was for Arson at age 20. Mr. Moretti’s “second strike” came at age 26, when he pled guilty to Vehicular Assault at the age of 26 after he caused a collision while intoxicated. Six years later, Mr. Moretti was convicted of First Degree Robbery and Assault, when he took part in beating and robbing 2 men who were attempting to buy methamphetamine. Mr. Moretti was labeled a “Persistent Offender”, and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Mr. Moretti and the other consolidated defendants argued that such a conviction as applied to him was cruel in violation of Article 1, Section 14 of the Washington State Constitution and the 8th Amendment because the trial court was not able to consider his youth at the time of his prior strike offenses.

The Washington Supreme Court was not swayed by his arguments. The Court held that such sentencing practices were not categorically cruel, and that the sentences were not grossly disproportionate to the offenses using the “Fain factors”.

There are a couple of things I would like to point out here. The first is that courts, as a rule, are often reluctant to overturn statutes unless they have a very good reason for doing so. The rhetoric about “activist judges” is simply that, rhetoric. The second thing to consider is whether we really want our justice system to function this way. Mr. Moretti and the other defendants were certainly given due process and should be punished for what they did. However, a life sentence without the possibility of parole seems excessive. Life, without even the chance of getting out, for robbing somebody with a baseball bat? He should definitely have, in this writer’s opinion, “done some years” for that offense. And the court should have taken his prior record into account. But it also seems fundamentally unjust for the legislature to mandate a life sentence and take all discretion away from the judge sentencing him. Aditionally, think of the expense of housing, feeding, and providing medical care to Mr. Moretti (and the other defendants) for the rest of his days.

Perhaps it is time we change our stance on mandatory minimums.