Lawmakers sent a controversial crime bill back to Governor Deval Patrick Monday after roundly rejecting an amendment he had proposed that would have given judges some flexibility in sentencing repeat offenders.
The move effectively dared the governor to sign the bill, despite his concerns about the lack of judicial discretion, or veto it and risk the wrath of legislators, victims’ families, and prosecutors who have been pushing for it. He could also do nothing and let the bill become law without his signature.
However, time is running short. Lawmakers are scheduled to end their legislative session at midnight Tuesday. If Patrick were to veto it after that deadline, lawmakers would have no chance to override the veto, so the legislation would effectively die.
The decision has left him in a standoff with the vast majority of Democratic and Republican legislators, who are urging the governor to sign the bill.
Patrick refused to say Monday what he plans to do. He insisted the bill would have been better if legislators had approved his amendment.
Giving judges some flexibility is “not about letting anybody off,” Patrick said.
“The question is whether, after serving a significant amount of time, there are circumstances where a third-time felon ought to be eligible for parole,” he said. “I think there are circumstances we can’t anticipate, where we’d like to see a judge have the authority to consider that.”
Even as Patrick was speaking, lawmakers were rejecting his amendment. The House voted, 132 to 23, to turn back the changes the governor wanted. Minutes later, the Senate followed suit, on a voice vote without debate.
The legislation that lawmakers approved establishes a list of 46 serious crimes — including murder, rape, armed burglary and home invasion — that would count as a “strike” against an offender. Offenders who commit three strikes from the list would lose the chance for parole. Convicts would have to be sentenced to at least three years in state prison for the offenses to count as a strike against them.
At the same time, the legislation decreases punishment for some nonviolent drug offenses.
Supporters argue that the bill would guarantee that repeat offenders who pose a major threat to society serve the maximum sentence under the law. They have argued that a number of high-profile slayings by repeat offenders — including the December 2010 killing of a Woburn police officer — could have been prevented by the legislation.
Opponents have said that the bill would exacerbate jail overcrowding and add to an incarceration crisis among black and Hispanic men. Judges, they say, should be allowed to consider mitigating factors when deciding how to sentence repeat offenders.
Patrick, a former lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, has said he is torn.
On the one hand, he says he agrees with the thrust of the bill: toughening punishment for repeat offenders and loosening punishments for nonviolent drug offenders. On the other hand, he says he is deeply concerned that the lack of flexibility for judges puts “the business of justice on automatic pilot.”
He is facing intense pressure from two important groups: While victims’ relatives, prosecutors, and most legislators back the bill, black and Latino lawmakers are urging Patrick, the state’s first black governor, to reject it. The chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, a Patrick appointee, has also said that the bill does not give judges enough flexibility in sentencing.
The decision could have larger ramifications for Patrick’s political future. The governor, who has been traveling the country, speaking to Democratic groups, risks alienating liberals and African-Americans if he signs the bill. Both groups have stood by him throughout his career and worked hard to elect him.
On the other side are victims’ relatives, including Les Gosule, whose daughter, Melissa, was raped and killed in 1999 by a man who had been convicted of 27 crimes. He watched the House reject the governor’s amendment Monday and then urged Patrick to sign the bill.
“At this point, we need it, the public wants it, there’s no excuse not to sign the bill, and give me the pen,” Gosule said. “I want that pen tomorrow.”
If Patrick vetoes the bill, Gosule said, he should do so quickly, so legislators can tackle his veto Tuesday.
“The last thing that should happen in this country is that you should lose a battle based on the clock,” said Gosule, who has been pushing for the bill for 10 years. “If he is for the bill, then sign it; if he wants to veto the bill, then let him be man enough to veto the bill tomorrow and give a chance for the House and Senate to override it.”
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, argued that the governor’s proposal to give judges flexibility in sentencing repeat offenders would dramatically undercut the legislation.
“I think the amendment just guts the whole bill,” he said. “The purpose of this legislation is to state that those people who commit a horrific list of some 40 crimes, the worst of the worst, be given a sentence and that they be required to serve that sentence.”
Supporters said the bill preserves some judicial discretion because offenders who are sentenced under the legislation would automatically have their cases reviewed by the SJC. The high court, however, would only be allowed to affirm that the law was correctly applied and would not be able to weigh mitigating factors in an offender’s case.
Such showdowns are not uncommon at the close of a legislative session. Two years ago, lawmakers and the governor were locked in a similar standoff over casino gambling legislation.
Like most legislative sessions, this year’s began to wind down Monday, with a flurry of last-minute action.
On Monday, legislative negotiators quietly scrapped an expansion of the Bottle Bill, which would have added water, juice, and sports drink bottles to the list of containers that can be recycled for a nickel deposit. The bill was a top priority of environmental groups, but the supermarket lobby argued that it amounted to a tax and would increase the price of beverages.
Lawmakers expect to end the session Tuesday with votes on several remaining bills, including Patrick’s top priority: a major proposal to reduce health care costs.
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