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Gov. Patrick signs ‘three strikes’ bill

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After days of back and forth with the state legislature, Gov. Deval Patrick agreed to sign the controversial “three strikes” bill, saying the bill was a “good start” to more comprehensive criminal justice reforms.  

“I understand the concerns of those who worry we have taken judgment out of the justice system and the pain and frustration of the families of victims of violent crime,” Patrick said in a statement. “For all those interests, and those of the public at large, this bill is a good start.”

On Monday, the Massachusetts legislature had sharply rejected Patrick’s proposed amendment to the “three strikes” bill, leaving the fate of the controversial measure up in the air. After just an hour of debate, the House voted 132 to 23 against the governor’s new provision, while the Senate rejected it later in the day. Patrick inserted a “safety valve” provision that would allow judges the discretion to modify the “three strikes” penalties.

“With this amendment, we’re just gutting the bill,” said Massachusetts House Speaker Robert Deleo, a Democrat. “We may as well, I feel, not even do it.”

Patrick had until midnight on Tuesday, July 31, the end of the legislative session, to make a decision on whether to approve or veto the bill without his requested changes. He agreed to sign the bill on Tuesday afternoon.

“I asked for a balanced bill,” Patrick said in a statement, “and, after many twists and turns, the legislature has given me one. Because of the balance between strict sentences for the worst offenders and more common sense approaches for those who pose little threat to public safety, I have said that this is a good bill. I will sign this bill.”

The back-and-forth started last month when state lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favor of the bill, which imposes mandatory sentences and eliminates parole eligibility for repeat offenders. It was then sent to the governor’s desk, with the option to approve or veto the measure, or to send it back to the legislature with recommendations for changes. Over the weekend, Patrick chose the latter, advising lawmakers to adopt greater flexibility in the way sentences and parole are determined.

While Patrick has made clear that he supports more mandatory sentencing, he explained in a letter to state lawmakers that his main concern with the bill is that it strips judges of their power to determine prison sentences.

“I believe the new habitual offender law should include limited judicial discretion to ensure that this expansion of mandatory sentencing does not have unjust consequences,” Patrick wrote. “None of us is wise or prescient enough to foresee each and every circumstance in which the new habitual offender provisions may apply.”

In the version of the bill reviewed by the governor, those convicted of a third violent felony would automatically receive the maximum sentence without the possibility of parole. For those convicted of a third nonviolent felony, parole eligibility would be delayed. These mandatory penalties strip judges of their traditional power to tailor sentences based on the circumstances of the crime — and the defendant.

In addition to sentencing provisions, the bill also reduces mandatory jail time for certain nonviolent drug offenses, and decreases the distance from a school zone that carries additional penalties for drug offenses from 1,000 to 300 feet.

“The sentencing judge, who has observed all the witnesses and the defendant, heard all of the evidence, and considered and ruled upon all the arguments throughout the course of the trial, is in the best position to appreciate all the facts,” Patrick continued in the letter. “He or she should have some limited discretion, as judges in other states do, to allow parole eligibility after a period of time served.”

In the governor’s failed amendment, which Patrick called a “safety valve,” the courts would have had the ability to grant parole eligibility to habitual offenders after two-thirds of the maximum sentence was served, or after 25 years of a life sentence. Patrick had pledged to sign the bill if these changes were approved by the legislature.

Patrick’s decision to send the bill back to lawmakers came after the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts expressed its concern with the proposed legislation. During his deliberation, Patrick reached out to the court, seeking its opinion on whether the bill provided enough judicial discretion.

“The short answer to the inquiry is that it would not,” Chief Justice Roderick Ireland wrote in a letter to the governor. “The Justices also have the additional concern that the legislation may have an unintended, adverse effect on the role of the Supreme Judicial Court as the highest court in the Commonwealth.”

While the fate of the “three strikes” bill is now decided, the debate over the future of Massachusetts’ criminal justice system is far from over. State Senate President Therese Murray, who favors the bill, promised the governor that the Senate would commit to comprehensive criminal justice reform next legislative session.

 “Our work is not complete,” Patrick said in a statement. “I still believe there is a necessary role for judicial discretion when it comes to sentencing and many of the advocates of this bill have pledged to support that next year.  The Senate President and the Speaker have pledged to return to the subject of mandatory minimum sentencing early in the next session. I take them at their word. When we do, I trust the decisions we make will be based on data about the costs and trade-offs inherent in the choices we make.”