By now, most people know that Governor Deval Patrick has agreed to sign the “Three Strikes” crime bill that the Legislature originally delivered to him last week. He had sent the bill back to the Legislature with an amendment to provide judicial discretion in sentencing certain habitual offenders who have been convicted more than three times for almost 40 violent crimes. The Legislature rejected that amendment, very quickly.
Patrick claimed he requested the amendment after Supreme Judicial Court Roderick Ireland responded to Patrick’s written request for clarification of the Legislature’s final bill, opining to the governor that the law could lead to an overly-crowded appeals docket, given the lack of judicial discretion in the bill. Whatever his motivation, the Legislature kicked what many saw as his attempt to “water-down” the bill by allowing parole in certain cases instead of life imprisonment, right back at his doorstep.
I think the governor made the right decision in signing this bill as is. As Norfolk County criminal lawyer, as a rule I do not approve of mandatory sentences, and I have written previously about this subject in this blog. However, there can be exceptions to a rule, and I don’t see the objections or problems that are typically presented with mandatory sentence provisions, in this particular bill. The reason for that is that the only defendants who are going to end up in the situation of facing a mandatory sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole, are the worst offenders imaginable. Serial criminals who are extremely violent, and who have already been convicted three times or more for the most heinous, violent of offenses. Any defendant in that position has pretty much already earned his stripes as a serial, unrepentant, violent criminal. Such people belong behind bars for life. Yes, I can say that, even though I’m a criminal defense attorney. My chief concern is that every defendant, no matter what he or she is charged with, receives a fair trial with a competent defense attorney. If those requirements have been met and a defendant has been convicted three times of extremely violent crimes, I don’t have a problem with a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no parole.
An important word about the very vocal objections to this bill raised by minority groups: Those objections turned my stomach. If the bill’s provisions happen to affect a particular segment of society more than other segments, whether minority or otherwise – that’s almost certainly because that segment is committing crime– not because the bill “targets” those particular people. In other words, if the new law would have resulted in a higher-than-average number of convictions of black, or Hispanic, or Asian, or any other category of defendants, then that would be so because those people were committing crime. The incredibly offensive premise of some urban activists and minority leaders, was essentially this: “The Legislature is crafting a bill to intentionally target _______________.” (You can fill in the blank here: Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, whatever.) Translation: “This bill will end up punishing a high number of the minority we represent, so you shouldn’t pass this law.” The Legislature’s (and my) response: If you don’t want this law to impact your “constituency”, then tell that constituency to obey the law and they won’t have to face its consequences. There is nothing “unjust ” at all about that.
Another very important reason to sign this bill into law: The bill contains extremely positive sentencing reforms concerning non-violent defendants convicted under extremely harsh and unjust sentencing laws: One extremely important change is that the bill reduces the size of a “school zone,” which has sent many non-violent drug offenders into jail and state prison, from 1,000 feet to 300 feet. This refers to the distance measured from a school, when a person is arrested for any drug offense. Most people never stopped to realize how incredibly long 1000 feet is: Three and a half football fields. This incredibly long distance meant that there was barely a spot in any city or town in Massachusetts where one could stand, and not be within 1000 feet of a public or private school. The result? Two otherwise law-abiding citizens could exchange a little over one ounce of marijuana for purely personal use, and if arrested and convicted, end up behind bars. As a Norfolk County drug crimes lawyer, I can assure everyone: All these laws did was increase cost and space pressures on our prison system.
Note should be made here of Les Gosule, who fought for thirteen years to pass this bill. Gosule’s daughter, Melissa Gosule, was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a man who offered her help after her car broke down in 1999 on Cape Cod. The man convicted of killing her, Michael Gentile, had been convicted 27 previous times, but had served only two years behind bars.
He, his daughter, and all similar such victims deserve this balanced bill.