Governor sends habitual offender bill back to Legislature with proposed amendment

Governor Deval Patrick will not sign a controversial habitual offender bill and instead will send it back to lawmakers Saturday urging that they amend it to give a sentencing judge more flexibility.

“The new habitual offender law should include limited judicial discretion to ensure that this expansion of mandatory sentencing does not have unjust consequences,” Patrick wrote in his explanation to lawmakers.

The “three-strikes bill,” which would eliminate the possibility of parole for some criminals after their third offense, was passed overwhelming by both the House and the Senate earlier this month.

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Patrick had until Sunday to either sign, veto, or suggest amendments to the bill.

The governor’s amendment calls for judges to be able to deem some repeat offenders eligible for parole after they have served two-thirds of their sentence or, in the case of a life sentence, 25 years.

Previous versions of the bill included that so-called “safety valve,” allowing judges to forgo applying the three-strikes rule to some criminals, on a case-by-case basis, but the provision was stripped from the compromise version of the bill passed by the Legislature.

“I believe that this single change would significantly improve this bill,” Patrick wrote.

Patrick consulted with Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland, who told the governor in a letter on Thursday that the current wording of the bill would not provide the level of judicial discretion that Patrick had wanted.

During debate on the House floor, numerous supporters of the bill also expressed displeasure that the safety valve provision had been removed.

But Representative Brad Hill, a Republican who represents Ipswich and an original sponsor of the legislation, said in a phone interview Saturday afternoon that he will vote against Patrick’s amendment, which he argues, “ducks the intent of what this bill means.”

Hill noted that the compromise committee shortened the list of convictions that can count as a strike from 67 to 46. If a criminal amasses three strikes under the shortened list of violent crimes, he or she does not deserve the possibility of parole, he said.

“To say I’m disappointed and frustrated is an understatement,” said Hill, adding that he believes the revised legislation will not be approved by the House.

“I think the majority of the Republican caucus would say no to this.”

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Democrat, said during a taped interview on WBZ-TV Friday that adding a safety valve would “really gut the bill.”

If Patrick will not approve the bill as is, DeLeo said he has the votes to override a veto.

DeLeo’s spokesman said Saturday afternoon that the speaker expects Patrick’s amendment to reach the House floor for debate and a vote before the end of the legislative session on Tuesday.

Were the Legislature to approve Patrick’s changes, the governor said he will sign the bill into law next week.

If the Legislature rejects the governor’s proposed amendment, Patrick will have to sign or veto the original bill.