Unsatisfied by the lack of judicial discretion in the sentencing bill before him, Gov. Deval Patrick on Saturday sent back the sentencing reform bill sometimes called “three strikes” or “Melissa’s bill,” asking the Legislature to add a “safety valve” so that judges might have more discretion in allowing habitual offenders to avoid serving the maximum sentence without parole.
Patrick’s amendment would allow a judge to add the option of parole for habitual offenders convicted of a certain third felony and marked to receive the maximum sentence without the possibility of parole under the bill the Legislature sent Patrick last week with veto-proof and bipartisan support.
“I believe 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 a letter he planned to file with the Legislature around noon Saturday. “None of us is wise or prescient enough to foresee each and every circumstance in which the new habitual offender provisions may apply.”
The governor’s weekend action, however, did not sit well with state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, who decried both the governor’s action and the timing of it. While the House passed the bill 139-14 and it cleared the Senate 31-7 — and while legislative leaders appear to have the votes to override a veto — they would not have the opportunity to do so if they reject Patrick’s amendment and he then vetoes the bill after formal sessions end for the year on Tuesday.
“The choice to try to insert this into the process now in the eleventh hour is deeply, deeply unfortunate,” Tarr told the State House News Service. “The clock shouldn’t be the arbiter of public safety in Massachusetts.
““Governor Patrick has had a busy week defending the interests of those who break the law.” Tarr chided in a prepared statement sent to the Times. “He rejected a measure to require proof of legal residence to register a car, has said he will refuse to enforce restrictions on purchases with EBT cards, and now he is trying to provide violent repeat criminals with a ‘safety valve.’
“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,” Tarr added. “My hope is that the House and Senate will once again take a strong stand to protect public safety, and that the governor will act quickly in response to our actions to prevent the clock or the calendar from becoming the deciding factor in protecting the citizens of the Commonwealth from those who repeatedly make them victims.”
The push to deny parole to the state’s worst offenders was motivated by the Dec. 26, 2010 killing of a Woburn police officer John “Jack” Maguire by Dominic Cinelli, who was out on parole. However, the movement for more stringent sentencing of repeat offenders dates back many years and has been pushed for a decade by Les Gosule, to whom Patrick reached out on Saturday, explaining the reason for his amendment.
Gosule, whose daughter Melissa was raped and murdered by a repeat offender in 1999, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Patrick’s action also drew a quick rebuke from House Republican and longtime bill supporter Rep. Brad Hill, the Ipswich Republican whose district includes Manchester.
“I am very frustrated and disappointed at the governor’s proposal,” Hill said in a Sunday statement to the Times. “As amended, Gov. Patrick takes the teeth out of the bill’s intent.
The House and Senate conferees worked very hard to listen to both proponents and opponents of this bill and we put forward a balanced bill that reflected all parties,” added Hill, who, like Tarr, served on the joint conference committee. “his bill is meant to take the most heinous and violent criminals off the street by serving the mandatory sentence for their third offense.
“The governor’s proposal,” he reiterated, “guts the intent of the original legislation — which begs the question, why pass this bill if we are giving our most violent criminals any chance of parole after serving in our state prisons twice before?”
In his letter to lawmakers, Patrick said he was influenced by Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland’s letter dated last Thursday. In it, Ireland said the SJC review of habitual offender convictions would not provide the opportunity for changing sentences and the new reviews – which are currently limited to first-degree murder convictions – would hamper the court in its attempts to take up other cases. Patrick’s chief legal counsel made a “verbal inquiry” to the court earlier in the week, according to Patrick’s press secretary, Kim Haberlin.
Patrick has praised other aspects of the bill that reduce the minimum sentences for drug offenses and reduce the size of school zones used to increase drug sentences.
“I have proposed a narrow amendment. If the court determines that it is in the ‘interest of justice and upon a finding on the record of substantial and compelling reasons,’ the court would have the authority to allow parole eligibility for a habitual offender after serving 2/3 of the maximum sentence (or after 25 years in the case of a life sentence),” Patrick wrote in a letter to supporters of Melissa’s Law.
However, adding a “safety valve” to allow for judges to grant parole would fundamentally change the law, say its supporters, who crafted the bill during roughly eight months of conference committee deliberations.
“That would gut the bill,” House Speaker Robert DeLeo told WBZ-TV’s Jon Keller. He said, “We took the most heinous of crimes and made it apply to this law to make sure that the worst of the worst are those that are going to be affected.”