THE STATE HOUSE The so-called “three strikes” sentencing bill that would eliminate parole for three-time violent offenders is back in the hands of Gov. Deval Patrick.
The governor had tried to amend the measure to allow for judicial discretion, but lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected his amendment on Monday.
It all started when the Joint Committee on the Judiciary released its version of a crime bill that had been 10 years in the making. The compromise from House and Senate negotiators did many of the things Patrick wanted: It reduced certain mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders and narrowed what’s considered the school zone for drug crimes.
But when it came to eliminating parole for repeat violent offenders, the governor said the bill was too aggressive. So he sent it back to lawmakers, recommending an amendment. He asked that judges be allowed to use their discretion to grant parole after someone has served two-thirds of their maximum sentence or 25 years of a life sentence.
When the House took up the amendment Monday, members were incredulous.
“What today is about is looking at an amendment that was returned by the governor, that in my view guts the intent of the habitual offender piece of this bill. It guts it,” said Rep. Bradford Hill, a Republican from Ipswich.
Added Rep. Christopher Fallon, a Malden Democrat: “The problem with relying on judicial discretion is that judges have no accountability to the constituency.”
Some House members also argued that safety valves are already built into the system. For example, as one representative suggested, someone who feels like they’ve been wrongly accused on their third strike can appeal to a higher court.
And Rep. Daniel Linsky, from Natick, said Patrick can exercise his own discretion.
“A governor has two other extraordinary powers already: He has the power to pardon, he has the power to commute a sentence,” Linksy said. “A sentence commutation means to take a sentence and to make it shorter. The governor already has that power.”
Only two House lawmakers spoke in favor of Patrick’s amendment. Both are members of the Black and Latino Caucus and represent urban communities. They said the sentencing change would disproportionately affect their constituents.
Rep. Benjamin Swan, of Springfield, said lawmakers have been influenced by tragic stories attached to the three strikes provision — most recently, the story of a Woburn police officer who was killed two years ago by a multiple offender who was out on parole.
“Sometimes we become emotionally involved because of a little pressure of the media, a little pressure from the Herald, or one of the radio commentators, and we seem to forget how best to make a law,” Swan said.
But lawmakers said they’d been working on this bill for years, and weren’t acting from emotion. The Senate also rejected the governor’s amendment, without debate.
Now it’s Patrick’s move. He might be unwilling to veto a bill that took months to develop and includes many elements he supports. So he might sign it and hope that lawmakers keep their promise to revisit the legislation next session.
But if he does kill this bill, it probably won’t stay dead. Even though the formal legislative session comes to an end Tuesday night, if lawmakers want it badly enough, they could call a special session to override his veto.