Governor Deval Patrick said he will “probably” give the pen he uses to sign “Melissa’s Law” to Les Gosule, the father who pushed for a proposal that would bar parole for certain repeat felons after his daughter’s rape and murder in 1999. The push for the bill intensified amid public outrage over the murder of a Woburn police officer by a paroled felon in late 2010.
But the governor insists his decision this week to back the controversial sentencing reform legislation was not driven by emotion or election-year politics but by his belief that the final product, though imperfect, balances the demands of public safety and fairness for defendants.
“I hope that people see that I am trying to live by and govern by my convictions. I looked at this hard and long,” he said in a telephone interview. “We got so much more than we gave.”
It’s hard to see it exactly his way.
“Shame on you on that three-strikes bill, Governor. Shame on you,” a man leaning out of a window yelled at Patrick Tuesday afternoon, as the governor stood on a Roxbury sidewalk and publicly discussed his decision for the first time.
The governor told reporters he didn’t hear the comment. But certainly he knew the decision would offend liberals and African-American activists who lobbied hard for a veto. The legislation eliminates the possibility of parole for offenders who commit three serious violent felonies if two prior crimes result in a sentence of more than three years.
Patrick made a last-ditch plea for judicial flexibility. But after lawmakers rejected his proposal, he accepted theirs. Why? Patrick is in his second term, with no plans to run again for governor. Why not stand up to Beacon Hill and misguided, if popular, sentiment?
Patrick argues he got what he cared most about: immediate parole eligibility for nonviolent drug offenders. But critics say that doesn’t offset the harm from a law that exacerbates an incarceration crisis that mainly affects black men.
While Patrick is sometimes mentioned as a potential nominee to the US Supreme Court or for attorney general — and even as a possible presidential candidate — he insisted in an interview that his decision on the three-strikes bill has nothing to with gossip about his political future. “The weariness you hear in my voice,” he said, “is that nobody seems to believe what I say about it. I’ve got the only job in politics that I want.”
He also dismisses the suggestion that President Obama doesn’t want a soft-on-crime surrogate on the campaign trail. “If that’s a problem, it’s not my problem,” he said. “I’ve never talked to anyone on the campaign or with the president about this bill.”
Patrick’s rationale for supporting the new law seems plausible. After the bill stalled in committee, he brought lawmakers to his office in search of compromise. He worked hard to make the proposal more palatable to critics, by reducing the scope of crimes that could lead to parole ineligibility. Because of his advocacy, he got lower mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. Legislative leaders also promised they would try to reduce strict sentencing rules for certain drug crimes when the new legislative session begins in January. Patrick wants to make that the next battleground for criminal justice policy in Massachusetts.
But the governor also acknowledges frustration over how criminal justice issues “are dealt with or not dealt with. There are sensational events that happen, and people galvanize around that emotion.”
In the end, it looks like he was not immune to it.
“These kinds of bills have been almost unstoppable anyplace because of the political pressure, no matter how troubling they are,” said Nancy Gertner, a former federal judge who argues against three-strikes legislation.
The pressure, she said, is exceptionally hard to resist when legislative proposals come wrapped in a victim’s name and narrative. In Massachusetts, Les Gosule has been lobbying for sentencing reforms for more than a decade.
Yet the cause of Gosule’s life will not necessarily save other lives; it may burden an already over-burdened prison system. Patrick could have vetoed it on those grounds. But that would generate brutal headlines about a criminal-loving governor, instead of heart-rending photos of a compassionate one handing a pen to a ever-grieving dad.