The three-strikes bill met with opposition
BOSTON — House and Senate conferees reported progress on a sentencing bill Friday as citizens groups gathered at the State House to protest a provision that would eliminate parole for violent criminals.
“Mass incarceration will lead to the appearance of for-profit prisons in Massachusetts, which will be a revolving door for a high rate of crime, incarceration, and recidivism,” said the Rev. George Walters-Sleyon of the Center for Church and Prison. “The state Black and Latino Legislative Caucus unanimously opposed the bill for its harshness.”
The so-called three-strikes bill would eliminate parole for those convicted of three violent crimes. But the Senate version of the bill would also reduce mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of nonviolent crime and drug offenses, and reduce the size of school zones that trigger harsher penalties for those who deal drugs near schools.
The Rev. Clovis Turner, who worked for more than 30 years at MCI-Framingham, the state’s only prison for women, said more rehabilitation programs are needed.
“I believe this law is from hell, I don’t know how many people believe in hell?” she said.
Members of the conference committee assigned to iron out differences between the two bills face difficulties in reaching compromise because the House bill is limited to the three-strikes provision.
Following the meeting, panel member Sen. Steven A. Baddour, D-Methuen, said the committee needs to continue the dialogue to pass the bill as quickly as possible.
“I am not ready to set aside the provisions the Senate worked hard on,” he said.
Rep. Bradford Hill, R-Ipswich, a member of the conference committee, said the House conferees would be willing to discuss the reduced mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders.
“We’ve been able to come a long way in accepting the fact that we will even debate that issue in this conference committee,” Hill said. “But I do think that if you are going to put away the most heinous criminals, you also have to look at what we’re doing with nonviolent offenders as well.”
Prisoner rights groups and some legislators remain opposed to the harsher provisions in both bills.
Rep. Gloria L. Fox, D-Roxbury, member of the Black and Latino Caucus, opposes the three-strikes and mandatory post-release supervision in the legislation.
“It deals only with the most punitive aspects of the bill, while the governor asked for a balanced bill,” she said.
Juan M. Cofield, president of the NAACP, New England Area Conference, said the three-strikes bill will be extremely costly and ineffective.
“There is a need for a comprehensive criminal justice reform, which would include measures to prevent crime and rehabilitate offenders while in prison,” he said.
Larry Ellison, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, who was not at the meeting, said he thinks there is a disproportional relationship between the types of crime and the sentences.
“A murder is a murder and first-degree murderers should get life sentences, but some of the crimes listed (in the bill) are nonviolent ones,” he said. “Grouping everyone together does not make sense, this problem affects more than just offenders, it is about their families, too.”
Rep. David Linsky, D-Natick, a former prosecutor and member of the panel, said before the meeting the committee needs to make sure it only affects the worst of the worst criminals.
“The habitual violent offender bill should only affect between five and 10 of Massachusetts’ offenders a year,” he said.
Regarding the cost of the legislation, he said, “If we pass both bills simultaneously it will actually save money.”
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, and member of the panel, said he is optimistic about both chambers reaching an agreement.
“This legislation will contribute strengthening public safety by ensuring that the worst offenders would be locked up,” he said. “The Ways and Means Committee estimated that the savings achieved in one part of the bill (the cost of granting parole to nonviolent drug offenders) will offset the additional costs in others.”
The other panel members include Rep. Bradford Hill, R-Ipswich, and Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty, D-Chelsea.
Richard Sobey contributed to this article.