A crime bill pushed extensively by Cape Ann’s two Republican state lawmakers is now awaiting the approval of Gov. Deval Patrick after clearing both chambers of the Democrat-dominated state Legislature last week.
The sentencing reform measure known prominently as Melissa’s Bill is one that state Rep. Brad Hill has been working on for a decade is now awaiting the approval of the governor. Melissa’s Bill, which gained both House and Senate approval in back-to-back days at the end of last week, would eliminate parole for three-time violent criminals while, at the same time, lessening punishment for nonviolent drug offenders.
The passage by the state Legislature marks a major milestone in Hill’s decade-long advocacy for the bill. But the Ipswich Republican, whose House district includes Manchester, isn’t celebrating yet — knowing the legislation still needs the signature of Gov. Deval Patrick, with the end of the legislative session on July 31 looming as the deadline.
“This is something I’ve been working on for 10 years, so clearly I was happy to see its passage, but there’s still another step in the process,” Hill said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that we can get this signed and into law, but we’re going to have to wait to see what the governor does.”
The bill also drew intense support from Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, the Gloucester Republican who, like Hill, served on the conference committee that hammered out the compromise that cleared both the House and Senate late last week and now sits on the governor’s desk.
“I think we at last have a product which is in the best interests of the public safety of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and first and foremost a product that responds to the public safety threat which is posed by those who would recidivate with regard to violent felonies,” Tarr said after the bill cleared conference committee.
The main provision of Melissa’s Bill calls for the elimination of parole for anyone convicted a third time of certain violent crimes like murder and rape. The law is named in memory of Melissa Gosule, who was raped and killed by a repeat offender in 1999.
One of Hill’s former aides worked with Gosule’s father, Les. In the wake of his daughter’s murder, he approached Hill about keeping repeat violent offenders in prison.
“For 10 years, Les Gosule and I have been fighting this fight,” Hill said.
Up until this year, versions of the bill never made it out of committee. Hill acknowledged that some of the early legislation, which was modeled on California’s three-strikes law, was flawed.
This year’s bill, he said, is a more balanced approach. While taking aim at repeat violent offenders, it also attempts to address prison overcrowding by reducing sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and providing them with addiction treatment programs.
“Under current law, a nonviolent drug criminal sentenced to a minimum sentence has absolutely no chance for parole, but a murderer does,” Hill said. “Other states have said, ‘Let’s get (nonviolent drug offenders) the help they need and they won’t be coming back to the state prison system.’”
Hill called the bill a “first step” in dealing with minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and said further improvements can be made next year.
“The way we currently incarcerate nonviolent drug offenders needs to be changed,” he said.
Hill said Patrick has expressed concern that the bill lacks a “safety valve” provision that would give judges some discretion when sentencing third-time violent offenders. The governor could sign the bill, veto it, or send it back to the Legislature with amendments. A spokesman for Patrick said Friday that the governor is reviewing the bill and would not comment on his plans.
Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said he supports the crackdown on violent offenders, but is disappointed that the bill does not update the state’s “antiquated” wiretap laws, which he said have not been changed since telephones had dials and cords.
“Our ability to investigate and successfully prosecute organized criminal enterprises such as street gangs is seriously hampered by the current statute,” Blodgett said.
Blodgett also said the bill fails to addresses issues concerning expanded DNA collections and improvements to domestic violence laws.
Paul Leighton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.