Between the Lines: Sacrifice Bunt?

What would be the proper baseball analogy to describe Gov. Deval Patrick’s turn-around on the so-called “three strikes” crime bill last week? That the governor struck out looking? That a brush-back pitch of political and public pressure chased him out of the box?

No doubt Patrick would prefer to describe his move as a sacrifice bunt made to advance the greater interests of his team—in this case, criminal justice reform.

Initially, that strategy didn’t appear to be in the governor’s playbook. Early in the week, with the end of the legislative session fast approaching, Patrick had taken a firmer-looking stance against the three-strikes legislation, which would deny people convicted of a third felony the opportunity to apply for parole.

Critics of the measure say it’s overly broad and will worsen the state’s problem with prison overcrowding. They also object to the bill’s limiting a judge’s discretion in matters of sentencing and parole. In a Boston Globe op-ed earlier this year, Nancy Gertner, a retired U.S. District Court judge, called the bill “bumper-sticker politics that does nothing about crime, and costs millions, just when we can ill afford it.” It would also tie the hands of judges, preventing them from deciding cases on their specific circumstances, she wrote: “Make no mistake about it: with mandatory sentences, prosecutors sentence; judges do not.”

That was a concern of Patrick’s, too. While the bill contained some elements supported by the governor—shrinking “school zones,” which trigger harsher penalties for drug crimes committed within a certain radius of schools, from 1,000 feet to 300; reducing mandatory-minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug crimes—the three-strikes provision looked as if it could be a deal-breaker for him.

After legislators passed the bill by large majorities, Patrick proposed an amendment that would have allowed judges limited discretion to permit three-time offenders who’d served long portions of their sentences to petition for parole. Legislators promptly rejected that amendment, leading to some short-lived tension over whether the governor would veto the bill after the session ended, which would have prevented legislators from taking a vote to overturn his veto, or simply fail to act on it, allowing it to die.

In the end, though, Patrick blinked, announcing on the final day of the session that he would, in fact, sign the bill. The law, he now said, was “balanced,” offering both “strict sentences for the worst offenders and more common-sense approaches for those who pose little threat to public safety.”

The reductions in mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, Patrick continued, “start to move us away from the expensive and ineffective policy of warehousing nonviolent drug offenders … setting them on a path to recovery and stability and saving the state millions of dollars.”

Patrick added that he plans to push for more sentencing and parole reforms, a subject he said Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo have “pledged to return to … early in the next session.”

Well, sort of. DeLeo later told State House News Service that while “anyone can file whatever legislation they wish to file,” he was “not making any promises” about what would the results might be. As Patrick’s quick about-face on the bill suggests, legislators appear to be holding the better hand on this issue. That strong hand comes from strong public support for the bill, bolstered by a couple of high-profile cases of people murdered by violent repeat offenders out on parole. The bill was named in honor of Melissa Gosule, a young woman whose 1999 murder provided the initial impetus for the law. The effort gained more steam after the 2010 murder of Jack Maguire, a Woburn police officer, by parolee Dominic Cinelli.

But the new law gets decidedly mixed reviews from advocates of criminal justice reform, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums. In a statement last week, Barbara Dougan, FAMM’s Massachusetts project director, applauded the school zone reductions and drug sentence reforms, calling them progress away from “ineffective and costly one-size-fits-all sentences” that have prevented nonviolent offenders from accessing education and work programs as they prepare to return to their communities.

But Dougan criticized the three-strikes provision, saying, “Whenever courts are required to impose mandatory sentences, inevitably there are cases where the punishment exceeds the crime. When the courts are required to impose maximum sentences, and possibly life sentences, it is even more critical to have a safety valve mechanism in place to avoid an excessive sentence [in] certain cases.”

Author: Maureen Turner

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