Governor Deval Patrick sent an amended version of a controversial crime bill back to lawmakers on Saturday and said he will not sign the measure into law unless it includes expanded judicial flexibility — a change some legislators said conflicts with the law’s purpose and which they will staunchly oppose.
Patrick praised the so-called “three strikes” bill, which makes repeat offenders of certain violent crimes ineligible for parole after three convictions, but insisted that the Legislature amend the language to include a provision allowing sentencing judges to bypass the three strikes rule for some who have served two-thirds of their sentence or, in the case of a life sentence, 25 years.
Patrick had been pressed last week by Justice Roderick Ireland, chief of the Supreme Judicial Court, to seek changes in the bill that would allow for some judicial latitude in “three strikes” cases.
Republicans in both the House and Senate blasted Patrick’s call for expanded judicial discretion.
“To say I’m disappointed and frustrated is an understatement,” said Representative Brad Hill, a Republican from Ipswich and the bill’s original sponsor. “I think the majority of the Republican caucus would say no to this.”
House speaker Robert DeLeo, a Democrat, said in a taped interview on WBZ-TV Friday that adding a so-called “safety valve” provision would “really gut the bill.”
The Black and Latino Caucus, which opposed the original bill and is composed completely of Democrats, said on Saturday it is not sure whether the provision would win their support.
A handful of legislators voted against the bill because of its lack of a safety valve provision, and it is unclear how many of them will now support it.
The “three strikes bill” was passed overwhelming by both the House and the Senate earlier this month. Patrick had until Sunday to either sign, veto, or suggest amendments to it.
“The new habitual offender law should include limited judicial discretion to ensure that this expansion of mandatory sentencing does not have unjust consequences,” Patrick wrote in his explanation to lawmakers.
Previous versions of the bill included the safety valve, allowing judges to forgo applying the three strikes rule to some criminals, on a case-by-case basis, but the provision was stripped from the compromise version of the bill passed by the Legislature.
“I believe that this single change would significantly improve this bill,” Patrick wrote.
But some legislators who originally backed the bill say the addition of Patrick’s amendment softens what was meant to be a tough-on-crime law.
Hill, the bill’s original sponsor, said a phone interview Saturday afternoon that he will vote against Patrick’s amendment, which he argues, “guts the intent of what this bill means.”
Hill noted that the compromise committee shortened the list of convictions that can count as one of an offender’s three strikes from 67 to 46. If a criminal amasses three convictions from this shortened list of violent crimes, he or she does not deserve the possibility of parole, he said.
What remains unclear is whether the Democrat-heavy House, which overwhelming backed the original bill, will follow DeLeo’s lead if he votes against the governor’s proposed amendment.
If the Senate and the House reject Patrick’s amendment, legislators could send the original version of the bill back to his desk, forcing him to either sign or veto it.
A two-thirds vote of the Senate and the House could override a Patrick veto, however the vote on the amendment, the governor’s veto, and a new vote to override the veto would all have to occur before the end of the legislative session Tuesday.
“His actions to jeopardize the passage of the crime bill are both ill-timed and ill-advised by trying to amend a good and balanced bill with an extraordinary measure to protect repeat violent criminals, with precious little time remaining in the legislative session,” Republican Bruce Tarr, the Senate minority leader, said in a statement Saturday.
But as lawmakers lined up to slam Patrick’s proposal, some who initially opposed the legislation indicated that the amendment could win their support for the bill.
State Senator William Brownsberger, one of seven senators who voted against the bill, said he will likely vote in favor of Patrick’s amendment.
Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat, called for a judicial discretion provision during the Senate’s original debate over the bill.
In an interview Saturday, he said that automatically stripping repeat offenders of any chance for case-by-case discretion inappropriately takes power away from sentencing judges.
“You run a risk of substantial injustice,” Brownsberger said.
The crime bill also met opposition from the Black and Latino Caucus when it reached the legislative floor earlier this month.
The caucus praised the parts of the bill which set limits on mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, but slammed it for not going far enough.
Caucus leaders said they are not sure whether Patrick’s amendment is enough to persuade them to change their vote.
“The Black and Latino Caucus has always expressed concerns about this bill leaving out solutions that our districts — which include the highest proportion of crime victims — have been asking for for years,” said Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Democrat and caucus member .
DeLeo’s spokesman said Saturday that the speaker expects Patrick’s amendment to reach the House floor for debate and a vote before the end of the legislative session Tuesday.
Senate President Therese Murray said in a statement Saturday that she expects the amendment to be debated early next week.
“The crime bill remains a top priority.” she said. “We will do everything we can to get this bill done by the end of session.”