Three-strikes news: Mass. Governor Patrick returns sentencing bill to legislature

Last Saturday, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick returned an omnibus crime bill (H.3818) to the state legislature with a request for an additional “safety valve” amendment. In a letter to the legislators, Governor Patrick expressed support for the bill’s three-strikes provisions for “habitual offenders” convicted of violent crimes, but called for the addition of “limited judicial discretion” to allow parole eligibility in light of the particulars of individual cases.

Patrick explained the reasoning behind his amendment so late in the legislative session, writing,

None of us is wise or prescient enough to foresee each and every circumstance in which the new habitual offender provisions may apply. The sentencing judge, who has observed all the witnesses and the defendant, heard all the evidence, and considered and ruled upon all the arguments throughout the course of the trial, is in the best position to appreciate all the facts. He or she should have some limited discretion, as judges in other states do, to allow parole eligibility after a period of time served.

Specifically, the amendment establishes a judicial safety valve for granting parole eligibility to third-strike offenders who serve at least two-thirds of their max sentence (or 25 years of a life sentence) when the judge determines that to do so would be “in the interest of justice” in light of “substantial and compelling reasons.”

Patrick indicated that his proposed amendment followed concerns by Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland over lack of judicial discretion in the three-strikes provisions. Chief Justice Ireland submitted a letter to the Governor’s office on July 26 outlining these concerns.

While Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo has suggested that Patrick’s amendment would “gut” the bill, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a national advocacy coalition that calls for individualized sentencing, praised the Governor’s position. FAMM Massachusetts director Barbara J. Dougan lauded the amendment’s inclusion of judicial discretion, writing that “one-size-fits-all sentences of any kind will always result in unfair sentences for some.”

The Massachusetts legislature is expected to consider the proposed amendments on Monday, July 30.

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