The House and Senate on Thursday rejected Gov. Deval Patrick’s amendment that would have given judges the discretion to grant habitual offenders parole, forcing the governor now to make a decision that will determine whether the bill becomes law or dies this session.
The House voted 132-23 to reject the governor’s amendment after a lengthy debate, while the Senate followed suit without any debate or a roll call on the issue, throwing the bill back in Patrick’s court with little time remaining for the Legislature to deal with a potential veto. A Senate vote late Thursday sent the bill back to the Corner Office.
Rep. Brad Hill, an Ipswich Republican who has been fighting for an updated habitual offender law for the past decade, called the votes the first step in a “complicated process that will play out over the next 24 hours” as lawmakers wait to see what the governor decides.
“What remains abundantly clear is that the House of Representatives, the Senate and the residents of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts want this bill to be signed into law as is – without any further amendments,” Hill said.
Patrick, who spoke to reporters after signing a gaming compact with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe moments before the House vote, gave little indication what he might do over the next day. The governor has the option of signing the bill, vetoing it with enough time for the House and Senate to attempt an override, or holding on to the bill past the end of formal sessions on Tuesday when his veto would kill the bill.
“I want to see, first of all, if people get a chance to vote on it. I think the amendment is right. I think the amendment helps make a good bill better, and I want to be able to sign this reform to the habitual offender and non-violent drug offender laws this session,” Patrick said.
The governor’s amendment would have given judges the discretion to grant parole to three-time felons sentenced to the maximum punishment under the new law after those convicted served two-thirds of their sentence, or 25 years of a life sentence.
“I’m not playing games. I want this bill done this session. There have been a lot of people working on this for a long, long time. This will be a better bill if there is judicial discretion,” Patrick said.
Patrick also called the suggestion that he was being more deferential to lawbreakers than innocent citizens “ridiculous,” and said the circumstance when parole would be warranted would be “rare."
“It’s not about letting anybody off. The question is after serving a significant amount of time, there are circumstances where a third time felon ought to eligible for parole, and I think there are circumstances that we can’t anticipate where we’d like to see a judge have the authority to consider that,” Patrick said.
Les Gosule, whose daughter Melissa was murdered in 1999 by a habitual offender, called on Patrick to sign the bill, or be “man enough” to veto it quickly so the Legislature could override the veto.
“The last thing that should happen in this country is to lose a battle because of the clock,” Gosule said, flanked outside the House chamber by Rep. Hill and Rep. James Dwyer, of Woburn, where a police officer was murdered two years ago by a repeat felon.
Gosule said the overwhelming support shown by the House for the bill should be enough to convince the governor to sign the legislation without judicial discretion, and Gosule said the issue could be revisited next session.
“At this point we need it. The public wants it. Sign the bill and give me the pen. I want that pen tomorrow,” Gosule said. “This bill is not for Melissa, per se. This bill is to prevent any other family from living through a private holocaust and for the family members not to stay up at night wondering what could have been done.”
During debate in the House, Rep. David Linsky, a Natick Democrat who served on the committee that negotiated the final bill, urged his colleagues to reject Patrick’s amendment, arguing that the bill was narrowly tailored to a “small class of violent habitual offenders,” and that there was an appeal process to protect those wrongly convicted.
Rep. Russell Holmes, a Dorchester Democrat, raised concerns about minorities being disproportionately caught up by the criminal justice system, and said judges should be trusted to do the jobs they were appointed for. He supported the amendment.
Dwyer also tried to knock down concerns expressed by Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland that mandatory appeals for three-strike convictions would clog the high court, and keep them from reviewing other cases. Dwyer said the law would impact only eight to 15 cases a year.