Plenty of advice as Patrick mulls three-strikes bill

Supporters and opponents of a sentencing and habitual offender bill on Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk offered up a cacophony of suggestions to the chief executive, calling on him to sign or amend or veto the legislation.

While weighing what to do with the legislation, Patrick said on Tuesday that he believes it’s a “good” bill. “It’s not a great bill,” he added in a conversation with reporters, saying he hopes he can get a commitment from House and Senate leaders to tackle other sentencing issues when they return next year.

Beacon Hill lawmakers are sending bills to the governor’s desk at a frantic pace as the end of formal session approaches. With overwhelming majorities, they approved the sentencing bill last week, providing Patrick with 10 days – until Sunday – for his review.

The legislation, known as the “three strikes” bill, eliminates parole for certain habitual violent felons, eases some sentences for drug offenders, and reduces school zones carrying enhanced sentences for drug offenses to 300 feet from 1,000 feet. Supporters say it cracks down on crime, while opponents say it will lead to increased overcrowding in prisons and disproportionately affect communities of color.

The votes in the House and Senate showcased a rare split in the Dorchester/Mattapan delegation. In the House, where the vote was 139 to 14, Reps. Linda Dorcena Forry, Carlos Henriquez, and Russell Holmes voted against the bill while Martin Walsh and Nick Collins voted their approval.

Over in the Senate, Sonia Chang-Diaz cast a vote against the legislation and Jack Hart supported it. As in the House, the Senate’s vote, 31-7, is veto-proof.

When asked what he believed Patrick should do with the bill, Mayor Thomas Menino, who had just finished reading to children at the Codman Square branch of the Boston Public Library, said, “Sign it. We have to make sure our streets are safe.”

But the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus sent a letter to colleagues in the House and Senate slamming the bill and calling it unbalanced. “It imposes new burdens on our courts and prisons while doing too little to promote actual rehabilitation for non-violent offenders and prevent recidivism,” they wrote. “It also removes the judicial discretion that is fundamental to the purpose of our judicial system and the principle of separation of powers.”

Rep. Henriquez said in an interview on TOUCH 106.1 FM that the legislation was “much better” than the versions the House and Senate had passed last fall. But he told the radio station that caucus members did not believe the bill was comprehensive enough, such as allowing for judicial discretion.

The future effects of the bill are unclear, he added. “We’re not going to know until it’s in practice.”

Members of Boston’s black clergy, holding a rally outside the State House, called on Patrick to amend the bill and send it back to the Legislature, a move they said would allow Patrick to show where he stands on the bill.

State Sen. Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, defended the bill while on the floor of the Senate. “This is not a bill that is a trap for the unwary,” he said. “This is not a bill that arbitrarily metes out sentences. This is a bill that says that if you repeatedly victimize citizens in the commonwealth, we are going to respond forthrightly and decisively to eliminate your parole eligibility.”

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