Massachusetts State House.
Policy Library

Judicial Discretion Lacking in Sentencing Bill

July 26, 2012

Last week the BBA’s concerns were sparked by the lack of judicial discretion in the long-awaited sentencing bill that arrived on Governor Patrick’s desk. The bill, H 4286, has moved through the Massachusetts Senate and House of Representatives after many months of negotiation by a Conference Committee. By way of background, the House and Senate approved their respective sentencing bills in 2001, but each was vastly different. To find common ground, a Conference Committee was appointed to negotiate the differences between the two versions. Despite raising concerns about some of the details of the bill and questions about whether it actually accomplished meaningful reform, the Conference Committee’s bill passed both the House and Senate by a veto proof margin. The BBA acknowledges the hard work and dedication of all of the members of the Conference Committee on this difficult piece of legislation. We only wish that the Conference Committee had retained the judicial discretion portions so important to the fundamental principles of fairness and due process.

The legislation now awaits action by Governor Patrick. We don’t yet know what Governor Patrick is going to do with this bill. By statute he has ten days to decide and those ten days expire on Sunday. Here are Governor Patrick’s options — he can sign the bill, veto the bill, or he can send the bill back to the legislature with common sense amendments aimed at making this legislation sensible and meaningful.

H 4286 eliminates parole for certain categories of habitual offenders and includes some reforms regarding mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes. The bill also shrinks school zones from 1,000 to 300 feet. Yes, there are aspects of the bill that are an improvement over the current sentencing laws. However, there are some significant things missing from this bill — including real and meaningful reforms for mandatory minimum drug sentences. Of greater concern to the BBA is the lack of judicial discretion in the entire bill.

The BBA has focused on sentencing reform for more than twenty five years. We hope that the Governor will file – and the House and Senate will consider — amendments that will make what is an okay bill a sound, more balanced bill.