Mass. high court chief justice says crime bill does not provide adequate discretion for judiciary

The chief justice of the state’s highest court said Thursday that the controversial crime bill recently approved by the Legislature does not provide the judiciary with an adequate level of discretion in sentencing habitual offenders—a key consideration for Governor Deval Patrick as he decides whether to sign the measure.

Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland sent a letter to Patrick in response to a query from the governor’s office saying that provisions of the crime bill would not provide the type of safety net over the sentencing of career criminals that Patrick had wanted.

Specifically, according to the letter, Patrick’s office had asked whether provisions that trigger an automatic appeal to the high court of anyone convicted under a so-called Three Strikes rule would supplement judicial discretion. Patrick apparently wanted to know whether the high court justices would have any input in considering a defendant’s characteristics when reviewing a life sentence appeal, for instance.

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Ireland said they would not, because the Supreme Judicial Court is restricted to reviewing whether the law was applied appropriately, and not any subjective, mitigating factors pertaining to one defendant’s case.

State law, Ireland said, “does not provide for review of sentencing determinations and the court’s review does not encompass reconsideration or modification of the sentence imposed in the trial court.”

“For this reason, the provision for review … of appeals from habitual offender convictions … does not address the removal of sentencing discretion from trial judges,” Ireland said.

The chief justice also raised a concern for the first time Thursday that the legislation “may have an unintended, adverse effect on the role of the Supreme Judicial Court as the highest court in the Commonwealth.”

Ireland said that the provisions requiring an automatic appeal and review of career criminal convictions would flood the court with basic, simple cases, rather than the “novel” cases that deserve review for the development of Massachusetts jurisprudence.

“These are the cases that present novel legal issues, unresolved points of Massachusetts law, the most significant constitutional issues, and like matters of great public concern,” Ireland said. “If the legislation were interpreted to place all appeals from habitual offender convictions … directly in this court, the court would have less space on its docket for the types of significant cases just described.”