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Rules of the game

Rules of the game
Man, I thought “three strikes” only worked in baseball.

Rules of the game

Some people are upset that Gov. Deval Patrick signed the “three strikes” bill. Others are even profoundly angry. They mistakenly believe that the governor had a real choice.

The posture of governors as leaders induces citizens to believe they have more power than the rules allow. When a bill comes to the governor’s desk the options are limited. The governor can return the bill to the Legislature with suggested amendments, veto it, sign it and make it law, or do nothing. If the governor chooses the last alternative, the bill automatically becomes law without his signature after 10 days.

Gov. Patrick decided to return the “three strikes” bill with a proposed amendment that would permit a judge to set aside an extended sentence if the facts suggested it was more reasonable to do so. The House voted 132 to 23 to reject the idea. That made it absolutely clear there would be a legislative override of a veto. The Legislature can nullify a governor’s veto by a vote of 67 percent in the House and Senate. Patrick already lost by an 85 percent margin in the House.

The wiser course of action was for Patrick to accept gracefully, a result that he was powerless to change. To wage a quixotic battle against the “three strikes” issue would generate real hostility with the Legislature and jeopardize the governor’s success on other important issues. It would be foolish for Patrick to put his whole legislative program at risk.

There is a strong feeling in the nation to punish career criminals more severely. For some time Americans have believed that the solution to society’s problems is to throw the malcontents in jail if they violate the law. Since 1972 there has been a sharp increase in the size of the incarcerated population. At the end of 2010, according to the Bureau of Justice statistics, 2,266,800 adults were confined to federal and state prisons or local jails.

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. In January 2010 there were 743 adult prisoners for every 100,000 residents. Russia was second with 577 per 100,000. Despite the fact that the crime rate is dropping, the rate of incarceration in the U.S. continues to rise.

In the last 20 years the country’s murder rate has substantially declined from 9.8 per 100,000 people in 1991 to 5.0 in 2009. Other crimes such as robbery and assault have also been on a downward path. Despite the declining crime rate the public support for massive incarceration continues to rise.

According to criminologists, the greatest causes of a high rate of incarceration are imprisonment for non-violent drug offenses and excessively long sentences. Another reason for the high imprisonment statistic is the extraordinarily high rate of incarceration for black males. In 2010 that rate was 4,347 inmates for every 100,000 black U.S. male residents, while the rate for white males was 678 for 100,000 residents.

There is no question that Gov. Patrick is concerned that a black man in Massachusetts may be 640 percent more likely than a white male resident to find himself in jail. The course of action Patrick took on the “three strikes” bill enables his administration to propose programs to eliminate the social ills that might lead to criminal behavior.