By Craig Sandler
State House News Service
STATE HOUSE — As the three-strikes bill, Melissa’s Law, moved through the last week of its decade-long journey, no one seemed especially happy with its final form. All sides in the matter seemed to harbor one complaint or another.
Sure sign of success for the democratic process.
At least that’s what we were taught in social studies, and it’s a lesson confirmed in real time beneath the Dome – points of view don’t change after they meet in the middle; meeting in the middle is one definition of collision, and no one is overly happy after a collision. In state policymaking, if a collision is sent to the governor for his approbation, we call that a “compromise.”
So it was with the three-strikes bill. Nearly everyone seemed to think it was – eh, not that great, but by and large better than nothing, and decidedly so.
But the father and brother of the two most visible catalysts for the law, Melissa Gosule and John Maguire, said the measure does enough, as the bill moved to the governor’s desk Thursday.
“My daughter would be alive today, Chuck’s brother would be alive today,” had the three-strikes law been in place prior to their killing by repeat offenders, Melissa’s dad Les said after the Senate’s 31-7 vote.
The bill that cleared the House Wednesday and the Senate Thursday in essence swaps a three-strikes system for an abandonment, to a significant degree, of the mandatory-minimum approach to nonviolent drug criminals. The first provision suggests the necessity for the second because representatives and senators were setting new rules for the circumstances under which more criminals should effectively be sentenced to die in prison. The list of crimes for which three convictions make a wrongdoer eligible for such a fate totals 40, down from the pre-conference 67.
Many voices of doubt and dissent were heard after the conference report was released. Gov. Deval Patrick said, “This doesn’t deal with everything that needs to be dealt with, but it certainly is a good faith step in the right direction. Speaker Robert DeLeo summed things up in similar fashion the day before.
Cape and Islands D.A. Michael O’Keefe was anything but ambivalent. He called the bill “a fraud on the public” because, he said, it didn’t include mandatory post-release supervision and lacks needed provisions like updating wiretap rights for criminal investigators. He said the bill will affect eight criminals a year. O’Keefe also pointed out, and Les Gosule later conceded to his assertion, that the bill was written in a way that would not have caught the man who raped and murdered Melissa Gosule in 1999.
To which Les Gosule countered, “Even if this bill wouldn’t have protected Melissa, if the bill protects some other woman from being raped then it’s worth the time and effort.”
O’Keefe’s objections were strident but not earth-shattering. What was unusual – highly so – was the strong public stand of the lead conferees – the branches’ chairman and chairwoman – on this compromise. Sen. Cynthia Creem (D-Newton) voted against it, saying its habitual offender piece fails to include a “safety valve” giving judges a modicum of discretion to grant parole. And her House counterpart Eugene O’Flaherty – while he voted “yes” on the committee report – sounded at times like he opposed it.
“Anytime that we add more mandatory minimum sentences it concerns me. I think that in Massachusetts we have a judiciary that’s appointed and they’re appointed to exercise their judgment,” O’Flaherty said.
He added, “We shouldn’t be making law based on who screams the loudest or who can tell us the worst story. We should be making law that I think makes sense in terms of what society wants.”
It was difficult to listen to the stances of Creem and O’Flaherty and not reach the conclusion that the bill’s advancement was not due in some part to the strong influence of their colleagues, including their bosses.
It remains to be seen yet whether the governor will sign the bill. He has signaled his support broadly, but also objected to the absence of a seemingly significant provision in the document now before him – the ability of judges to allow parole if offenders have served the bulk of their long sentences.
Left for time to tell is the most important issue – who is right, O’Keefe or the proponents? Will the elimination of parole for the very worst offenders make Massachusetts any safer? Also, will shorter sentences for non-violent drug offenders make Massachusetts any safer?
It would be tempting, very tempting, to start making cheap jokes here about the possibility of parole for some of the very lawmakers setting the new rules this week. But that would be wrong.
Because they were worried about FEDERAL indictments.
Still it was an unsettling spectacle. As the great issues of crime and punishment moved through the halls of Massachusetts statue-setting, questions re-swirled around the matter of who might be called to account for a system in which those halls may have been the setting for a taxpayer-funded jobs-for-favors racketeering enterprise.
Before we write another word, let it be clear that the number of lawmakers suspected of being actively involved in this scheme – in which the lawmaking friends of indicted former Probation Commissioner John O’Brien reportedly used his department as an employment agency for their relatives and cronies – is minute compared to the size of the Legislature.
On the other hand, the prominence of some of the people working under a cloud in the matter – makes the whole Legislature seem complicit, if only by suggestion. So does the fact that it was, after all, majority votes of both branches that provided the extra budget money O’Brien needed to beef up his payroll and made good on the requests for what independent counsel Paul Ware determined to be patronage hires.
In any event, the Boston Globe report Sunday that federal investigators appear to be stepping up their efforts to get to the bottom of possible wrongdoing sent a powerful, distracting frisson through the building.
The upshot was that while lawmakers should have been focused, and would have preferred the public have been focused, on the questions of crime in the community, what many were really worried about was crime in their community. The anxiety was especially acute after Ware himself opined that more indictments, of important people, are probably coming.
DeLeo denied that the feds seemed any more interested in him or his colleagues lately, and again strongly denied trading jobs for the speakership or other benefits from O’Brien’s operation.
Not all the talk of jobs had to do with the unsavory kind. The Senate took up a jobs creation bill containing so many different ideas and proposals that somehow, when all was said and done, the bottle bill had been expanded. This last development could safely be said to be the last thing anyone expected, and it was a measure of the week’s odd tone that Sen. Robert Hedlund was scoring significant policy victories.
Hedlund (R-Weymouth) is not accustomed to scoring significant policy victories, not on questions as controversial as applying the 5-cent deposit law to water, fruit drinks and other non-carbonated beverages. But for whatever reason – conference-committee bargaining chip on the overall jobs bill? – Senate leadership decided this was the moment to fast-gavel the proposal and tap into the revenues associated with the expansion. Hedlund backs it because he views the revenue as a recoverable fee, not a tax.
So the building moved into the final full week of formal sessions in a strange atmosphere – serious policy issues, like whether a one-size-fits-all statute should govern the most hardened cases, mingling with dark strains of concern about whether the probation department was tainted by illegal power-broking. A fascinating collision indeed.