Despite reservations that it limits judges’ discretion, Governor Deval Patrick welcomed a controversial crime bill passed by the Legislature Thursday that cracks down on violent criminals, but also lowers sentences for some drug offenses.
The legislation would make sweeping changes to the state’s drug laws, in many cases lessening or relaxing mandatory minimum provisions that had been in force for three decades. As significant, it would toughen treatment of repeat felons, making them ineligible for parole if they were convicted of certain violent crimes a third time.
In brief remarks Thursday, Patrick expressed measured support for the legislation.
“This doesn’t deal with everything that needs to be dealt with, but it certainly is a good faith step in the right direction,” the governor said.
However, Patrick was disappointed that lawmakers failed to include provisions that would allow judges to grant offenders the opportunity for parole after they serve the majority of their sentence, as he had requested. Named Melissa’s Bill, after 1999 murder victim Melissa Gosule, the legislation identifies 46 crimes that would count as a strike against a felon’s eligibility for parole. Once a repeat criminal amasses three strikes, or is given two or more life sentences, he will not be able to apply for parole.
Among the crimes are murder, rape, incest, aggravated assault, home invasion, and possession of child pornography; those convicted would have to be sentenced to at least three years in state prison for the crime to count as a strike.
“I am a little concerned that the discretion doesn’t remain with judges to make a decision in the interest of justice,” Patrick told reporters at an event in Westborough Thursday.
But the governor has been under pressure from families of crime victims and even members of his own party to sign the measure.
Patrick has 10 days to either approve or veto the version adopted by the Legislature Thursday, or he could also send it back to lawmakers with recommendations for amendments. Another option is a so-called “pocket veto” in which he does nothing before the Legislature adjourns next week, which would force lawmakers to call an emergency legislative session during which they could pass the bill into law with a two-thirds vote of both houses.
Senator Cynthia Creem, who chairs the committee that oversaw the bill’s development, said during the Senate debate that she could not support the bill because it lacked a safety valve for judges sentencing repeat felons.
“Why would you take all of the judicial discretion away?” Creem asked during an interview Thursday.
Creem said she hopes that Patrick will recommend that the Legislature amend the bill to include such discretion.
“The governor told us he’d support the bill only if it included judicial discretion,” she said. “I take the governor at this word, but I don’t know what he’s going to do.”
The changes in the drug laws are the first major softening in Massachusetts since harsh penalties were enacted in the 1980s during the country’s so-called war on drugs.
The changes include:
•Reducing the mandatory minimum prison sentence for some nonviolent drug crimes. For example, someone receiving a second conviction for distribution of heroin or morphine would receive a mandatory minimum sentence of 3½ years. The mandatory minimum sentences for those offenses is currently 5 years.
P Increasing the weight allowance of some drugs before mandatory minimum sentences are applied. For example, minimum sentences for heroin currently take effect at possession of 14 or more grams. That threshold will increase to 18 grams.
P Shortening the distance to a school before a mandatory minimum sentence applies for a drug offender, to 300 feet from from 1,000 feet. It also eliminates the school zone provision between midnight and 5 a.m.
•Creating a “Good Samaritan” provision, granting immunity from prosecution to those who report a drug overdose.
The law also increases the number of members on the Parole Board nominating committee from 5 to 9.
Some prosecutors were unhappy that lawmakers did not address other criminal justice provisions they asserted needed updating.
For example, they wanted the state’s wiretapping laws to be broadened after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled prosecutors can only use wiretaps as a last resort when dealing with sophisticated, organized crime at the organized crime level.
“I think this was a missed opportunity at meaningful reform,” said Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. “When these issues are ripe, and there’s an opportunity, it should be taken. I think we missed this opportunity.”
He and other prosecutors said they should be allowed to use wiretaps to investigate cases of drug crimes, murders, and weapons offenses.
The prosecutors also proposed a new crime of domestic violence by strangulation, to strengthen the punishment for choking beyond a general assault and battery charge.
And the prosecutors had asked that requirements of supervised release be added to all jail sentences, so that inmates receive guidance when they are released to communities. Both those measures failed.
Two of the legislation’s most outspoken supporters, Chuck Maguire, brother of Woburn police Officer John Maguire, who was killed by a repeat offender in 2010, and Les Gosule, whose daughter, Melissa, was raped and killed by a repeat offender in 1999, watched the debate from the Senate gallery Thursday and then spoke to reporters after the vote.
“This is not about two people,” Gosule said. “This is about multiple people who have been raped, stabbed, and murdered, multiple people who don’t have the time or ability to get out and be public like we do.”
Maguire and Gosule both exhorted the governor to sign the bill.
“He promised me if this bill was a fair bill, a balanced bill, that he would sign the bill and that it would be named the Melissa Gosule bill,” Gosule said. “I hope the governor will keep his word that he gave me on two separate occasions.”