Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick told lawmakers over the weekend that he supports a “three-strikes” policy for criminal sentencing, but only with a “safety valve” that would give judges get more flexibility.
Patrick is sending back to the legislature a crime bill that would deny parole eligibility for repeat violent criminal offenders, according to media reports. Patrick proposed adding a provision, which would allow sentencing judges to grant parole to prisoners who serve two-thirds their sentences, or after 25 years for those serving life sentences.
"This change will ensure that the expansion of mandatory sentencing — which I fully support — does not have unjust consequences," Patrick said in a letter to lawmakers, according to the Associated Press. "None of us is wise or prescient enough to foresee each and every circumstance to which the new habitual offender provisions may be applied."
Patrick's decision didn't sit well with Massachusetts Republicans, who said the proposed amendment would severely weaken the bill meant to be a tool for cracking down on violent crime.
“To say I'm disappointed and frustrated is an understatement,” Representative Brad Hill, the bill's Republican sponsor, told the Boston Globe. “I think the majority of the Republican caucus would say no to this.”
Though the bill passed in the legislature with broad bipartisan support, its three-strikes provision has faced some outside criticism.
A study released last month by Harvard Law School's Institute for Race and Justice said the measure would disproportionately affect minorities, and it would keep low-level offenders locked up, leading to overcrowding in prisons that could increase costs by $125 million each year.
The Massachusetts debate comes as many states are easing their habitual offender laws. Of the 25 states that first introduced such laws in the mid-1990s, 16 have since granted judges more flexibility, according to the Harvard study.
California, home to notoriously jam-packed prisons, could soon join that group. An initiative to overhaul the state's particularly harsh law was added to the November ballot. Under the current law, courts may sentence a third-strike convict to life in prison — even when their offenses are neither serious nor violent.