Patrick will sign ‘balanced’ bill on sentencing reform

A day after Beacon Hill lawmakers rejected Gov. Deval Patrick’s attempt to add judicial discretion to the crime bill, Patrick said he will sign the controversial legislation, which its supporters say will crack down on the state’s most violent criminals. Opponents contend the bill disproportionately affects minorities.

“I asked for a balanced bill and, after many twists and turns, the Legislature has given me one,” Patrick said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon. “Because of the balance between strict sentences for the worst offenders and more common sense approaches for those who pose little threat to public safety, I have said that this is a good bill. I will sign this bill.”

Sometimes known as the “three strikes” bill, the legislation eliminates parole for some habitual violent felons, eases some sentences for drug offenders, and reduces the so-called “school zone” deployed by prosecutors to enhance sentences to 300 feet from 1,000 feet.

Patrick said preliminary estimates peg at almost 600 the number of non-violent drug offenders who would be eligible for supervised parole as soon as the law goes into effect.

The House and Senate on Monday rejected an amendment Patrick offered that he said would improve the bill by providing judges with the discretion to grant parole to habitual offenders. The House – whose speaker, Robert DeLeo, said Patrick’s amendment would “gut” the bill – voted 132 to 23 against the amendment while the Senate turned it back without a bill.

In the House, the Dorchester delegation largely voted to support the governor. Rep. Nick Collins, a South Boston Democrat who represents slivers of Dorchester, voted with most lawmakers in opposition to the amendment. Reps. Marty Walsh, Linda Dorcena Forry, Russell Holmes, and Carlos Henriquez voted to support the governor’s change.

While both Forry and Holmes expressed disappointment in the outcome, they also said that if they were in the governor’s position, they would have signed the bill. The two lawmakers touted the benefits of the bill, such as the reduction of the “school zone” and reducing mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders.

Holmes said the Legislature’s black and Latino caucus members opposed the bill because they “had to draw a line somewhere.” He added that “no one was completely happy with the entire bill,” pointing to those, like Patrick, who demanded the inclusion of judicial discretion and prosecutors who called for updates to the state’s wiretapping laws. “Everyone gave up something,” he said.

Forry called the bill “somewhat comprehensive” while noting a general agreement on Beacon Hill to take up mandatory minimum sentencing reform in the next legislative session: “Everyone has said it. The speaker, the governor, the Senate president. And we’re going to be pushing it as a caucus.”

Collins took note that was some sentencing reform included in the bill dealing with nonviolent drug offenders. “This isn’t going after nonviolent drug offenders,” he said. “This is going after the baddest of the bad.”

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who represents part of Dorchester and Mattapan, said she was disappointed the governor accepted the bill, while also noting its “positive” aspects. She also noted that conservative states like Kansas and South Carolina are pushing back against this particular type of legislation after embracing it: “These are red states that are moving away from three strikes.”

At the State House, Les Gosule, a tireless proponent of the bill, said the governor had “kept his word.” The legislation is sometimes referred to as “Melissa’s Bill,” after Gosule’s daughter, who was slain by a habitual offender.

Patrick revealed to reporters his decision to sign the bill at a separate event in Dudley Square. Overhearing the governor’s statement, a man in a nearby building yelled from the third floor, “Shame on you!”

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.