Governor Deval Patrick, under intense pressure from police and from victims’ relatives, said Tuesday that he would sign legislation that removes the possibility of parole for certain repeat offenders, even though he believes the bill does not give judges enough flexibility in sentencing.
“It’s not a perfect bill, it’s not a comprehensive bill, but it does some good,” Patrick told reporters after he toured a Roxbury nonprofit group that seeks to reduce youth violence.
The bill was opposed by many of the governor’s closest allies, including liberals and African-American activists and lawmakers. Some said they were stunned that he decided to sign it.
They had believed that Patrick, the state’s first black governor and a former member of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, would veto legislation that they argued would exacerbate an incarceration crisis among black men and lead to untold prison costs.
“I am shocked,” said David J. Harris, managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. “It’s clear he felt the pressure from certain victims and felt he was going to be able to mollify them.”
Patrick announced he would sign the bill just hours before the legislative session ended with a flurry of last-minute action at midnight Tuesday.
The legislation removes the possibility of parole for offenders who commit three serious, violent felonies, such as murder, rape, and home invasion. The offenders would have to serve at least three years in state prison for one of the felonies to count as a “strike” against them. At the same time, it makes some nonviolent drug offenders eligible for parole.
Patrick said just six repeat offenders — people who have done “some pretty nasty things” — will lose the chance for parole each year under the legislation. But 600 nonviolent drug offenders will now be allowed to plead their cases to the Parole Board, he said.
The governor said he decided to sign the bill after legislative leaders promised they would try to reduce strict sentencing rules for certain drug crimes when the new legislative session begins in January. That issue is a Patrick priority and seems likely to become the next major battleground in criminal justice policy in Massachusetts.
“It’s not a complete bill,” said Patrick. “The bill only speaks to one small corner of the criminal justice system, but we still have mandatory minimum sentences rife throughout our criminal sentencing framework, and that needs to be dealt with. It’s a system of warehousing people that has failed.”
Prosecutors are likely to oppose any attempt to roll back sentencing rules for drug offenses. While Patrick argued the rules have crowded state prisons with drug addicts, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said they have helped prosecutors target major drug dealers.
“The connection between drug trafficking and violence is apparent to anyone who works in this field,” Conley said.
“I object to the governor’s classification that these individuals serving these drug sentences are low-level, nonviolent drug offenders,” he said. “They’re not. And it shows me he really does not have a firm grasp, at all, of who’s out there in our cities and communities” causing violence.
But Edward F. Davis, commissioner of the Boston Police Department, said he shares Patrick’s concerns about mandatory sentences for drug offenders. He said he was a narcotics officer when tough sentencing laws were passed in the 1980s and “it made our job more difficult.”
“The fact that someone has 14 grams or 28 grams of an illicit substance in their possession doesn’t make them a kingpin,” Davis said. “There’s a lot more that goes into that, and I think the judges can decide who the real bad guys are and put them away.”
Echoing Patrick’s concerns about crowded prisons, Davis said: “Our jails are too full of people who are there for mandatory minimum sentences for small amounts of cocaine and heroin, and I think we have to rethink that whole proposition.”
Patrick’s decision to sign the repeat offender bill ends one of those most contentious debates of the legislative session.
The governor wanted legislators to give judges some flexibility in sentencing repeat offenders. He contended that every case is unique and there were dangers in putting “the business of justice on automatic pilot.” But lawmakers rebuffed his proposed changes Monday and sent him the bill without granting judicial discretion.
Victims’ families, police, and the majority of legislators said they were relieved the governor decided to sign the bill, despite his reservations. “A lot of people are going to sleep better tonight, including me,” said Les Gosule, whose daughter Melissa was raped and murdered by a repeat offender in 1999. Gosule has lobbied for the bill for more than 10 years, and met several times with Patrick to urge him to sign it.
Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., a Harvard Law School professor and a Patrick supporter, said he was disappointed the governor decided to sign the bill even though it does not give judges leeway in sentencing. “This was a chance for him to stand tall and say what he truly believes about this bill,” Ogletree said. “The idea of having no judicial role seems to be wrongheaded and in the opposite direction of a tough but fair bill.”
As Patrick announced he would sign the legislation, lawmakers were racing to approve other major bills before their session ended. The House and Senate both passed Patrick’s top priority, a sweeping, 349-page proposal to reduce healthcare costs that was unveiled only hours earlier.
The House and Senate also passed a compromise of the so-called Right to Repair bill, which would require automakers to provide diagnostic software to independent repair shops.
That bill, which has drawn heavy lobbying from auto makers and auto-parts manufacturers, is slated to go on the November ballot.
But advocates on both sides of the issue said that if Patrick signs the bill, they will now tell voters the referendum is unnecessary.
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