The chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court said Thursday that the controversial crime bill approved by the Legislature last week does not provide the judiciary with adequate discretion in sentencing habitual offenders, a key consideration for Governor Deval Patrick as he decides whether to sign the measure.
Patrick has until Sunday to decide whether to sign the bill, veto it, or send it back to the Legislature with recommended changes. The high court’s cautions, expressed in a letter to Patrick Thursday, could be a critical factor as the governor comes under increasing pressure from both sides of the debate.
Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland wrote, in response to a query from the governor’s office, that provisions of the crime bill allowing for automatic appeals would not provide the type of safety net over sentencing of career criminals that Patrick sought. Ireland also warned that the Three Strikes bill, if signed into law, could clog the SJC with appeals that would drain resources from the justices’ primary mission.
According to the letter, Patrick’s office had asked whether the justices, in considering the appeals of people convicted under the Three Strikes law, would have enough leeway to review a defendant’s history when considering an appeal. The law allows no such latitude in the lower court.
Ireland said, no, that the SJC justices could review only whether the law was applied appropriately, not any mitigating factors.
While reducing mandatory sentences for some drug convictions and adding tools for law enforcement officers, the Three Strikes bill would send three-time convicted violent offenders to prison for life without the eligibility for parole.
The recently passed overhaul of the original Three Strikes bill would, if signed into law by Patrick, expand the list of violent felonies that would be used under the habitual offender law.
The crime law has drawn wide support among prosecutors, victims’ families, and the Legislature, which promised tough changes in sentencing laws following the fatal shooting of Woburn police Officer John Maguire by a repeat offender who had been granted parole two years ago.
But it has also been heavily criticized by black and Hispanic lawmakers who say it will disproportionately affect people from urban communities. They and others have called for provisions allowing for judges to have some discretion in sentencing and to be able to consider a defendant’s personal history.
A further issue Ireland raised about the bill, which is one of the most sweeping changes to public safety and sentencing laws in recent time, identified a concern for the first time Thursday that the legislation “may have an unintended, adverse effect on the role of the Supreme Judicial Court as the highest court in the Commonwealth.”
Ireland explained that the provisions requiring an automatic appeal and review of career criminal convictions would flood the court with basic cases and take time away from the novel cases that deserve review for the development of Massachusetts jurisprudence.
He said those novel cases address “unresolved points of Massachusetts law, the most significant constitutional issues, and like matters of great public concern.”
“If the legislation were interpreted to place all appeals from habitual offender convictions . . . directly in this court, the court would have less space on its docket for the types of significant cases just described,” Ireland said.
In asking the SJC for its opinion on the legislation, Patrick took a step that is not an everyday occurrence, but also not highly unusual, especially on key issues, according to spokesmen for the SJC and the governor.
Ireland has been known to be at odds with the governor over criminal justice issues such as court funding and the restructuring of the Probation Department.
But that the governor’s staff asked directly about judicial discretion, in a communication earlier this week, shows that Patrick’s demand that judges have a say in handing out life sentences continues to weigh heavily as he considers whether to sign the crime bill.
On Thursday, the governor’s office would not comment on the court’s letter, saying only that the governor continues to reflect on what he has called the strengths and weaknesses of the bill. Earlier in the week, he indicated he would be open to signing it if lawmakers agree to make changes next year.
Leslie Walker — an opponent of the bill from Prisoners’ Legal Services, an inmate advocacy group— said Thursday that Ireland’s letter is clear in that the bill does not provide the type of safety net Patrick is looking for. She also noted Ireland’s concerns that the bill will flood the court with cases that are not worth its attention.
“It’s a waste of time,” she said.
Walker and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers sent their own letter to the governor Thursday recommending he send the bill back to the Legislature, asking for changes.
“The need for a judicial discretion provision in the new crime bill is paramount,” they said.
“Such a review is important as these defendants are facing the most severe sentence one can receive in Massachusetts: life without parole.”
They added, “Only the judicial discretion provision will provide protection against extremely harsh mandatory sentences, including natural life sentences, when the crime simply does not merit the punishment.”
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