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‘…Strong and smart’

Deval Patrick
‘…Strong and smart’
Gov. Deval Patrick greets supporters at an event in Roxbury called “A Conversation with Governor Deval Patrick.” The event was held at the home of Dorothea Jones to discuss his Together PAC. (Photo: Kaicee)

In his sixth ‘State of the State’ address Gov. Deval Patrick takes a balanced approach in reforming sentencing and parole laws

Lastly, I ask [the state Legislature] to continue your support of our public safety plan and send me a crime bill that is both strong and smart.

There are too many tragedies to recount. It really doesn’t matter if it doesn’t happen in your city or your neighborhood. Whether it’s 14-year-old Steven Odom shot and killed by a 19-year-old in Boston, or Officer John Maguire shot and killed by a parolee in Woburn, everybody’s loss matters.

The overall rates of violent crime in many of our cities are down. But there are still too many instances of young people killing other young people, and isolated but no less shocking instances of repeat offenders committing further acts of violence. This problem belongs to all of us.

Last summer, the Legislature approved and funded our “Safe and Successful Youth Initiative.” We are working alongside municipal leaders, local law enforcement and community groups in high crime areas to focus on those young people most likely to commit or be victims of crime.

We want to support strategies that address local realities, with measurable success at reducing violence and engaging young people at risk, and to stop funding programs, however well intentioned, that are not getting results. I thank the Legislature for supporting this initiative and will ask you to do so again in our next budget. Together with our work to close achievement gaps in the schools, support summer jobs and mentoring, and improve job training, we have a sound and comprehensive plan.

Another piece of that strategy is before you now in a proposed crime bill. We have proposed reforms to both our Habitual Offender law and to our mandatory minimum sentencing laws to make the public safer. Both are important, and you must send me both.

In the past 10 years, 84 people have been convicted and sentenced under our existing Habitual Offender law for committing three felonies. I proposed to lengthen the time before a third-time violent felon would become eligible for parole, and will support a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole for anyone whose third felony is murder or a similarly heinous act of violence.

These reforms are not about sweeping up the innocent or the unlucky.  They rightly focus on the worst of those who repeatedly prey on our residents. We cannot and will not pursue a strategy that categorically rejects the proper place of parole in public safety. But that small number of the most hardened and destructive offenders ought to be separated from the public for a long time.

At the other end of the spectrum are nonviolent drug offenders. And in these cases, we have to deal with the fact that simply warehousing nonviolent offenders is a costly policy failure. Our spending on prisons has grown 30 percent in the past decade, much of that because of longer sentences for first-time and nonviolent drug offenders.

We have moved, at massive public expense, from treatment for drug offenders to indiscriminate prison sentences, and gained nothing in public safety. Ninty-two percent of the total prison population — 92 percent — is eligible for release at some point, and many come out more dangerous than they were when they went in.  

States across the country — most recently, Ohio, Delaware and South Carolina — have already recognized the folly of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and made significant reforms.

So, alongside our reform of the Habitual Offender rules, we must have a comprehensive reentry program. We need more education and job training, and certainly more drug treatment in prisons and we need mandatory supervision after release.

And we must make nonviolent drug offenders eligible for parole sooner. By permitting them to have supervised release after serving half their sentence, we can begin to re-integrate four to five hundred nonviolent offenders in the next year and save millions in prison costs every year.

We must be smarter about how we protect public safety.  That means targeting the most dangerous and damaging for the strictest sentences, and better preparing the non-dangerous for eventual release and re-integration. We don’t have to choose the one or the other, and emphasizing prison time without successful re-entry has failed.

Again, for the good of the Commonwealth, send me a bill with the right reforms to both our Habitual Offender law and our mandatory minimum sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenders. I will not accept one without the other.

Excerpted from Gov. Patrick’s ‘State of the State’ address on Jan. 23, 2012.