Archive for the ‘Special Projects’ Category

Unintended Consequences?

Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

By Jim Morrison and Monique Scott
The Boston University Statehouse Program

Will Massachusetts new medical marijuana law have consequences beyond comforting ill patients?

During a relatively quiet campaign on the voter referendum, opponents of the proposal, including law enforcement officials, warned legalized medical marijuana would lead to increased pot use by juveniles, addiction to other drugs and more driving accidents.

The debate over these potential consequences has raged in other states where conflicting studies have been attacked by advocates on both sides for the studies assumptions and methodologies.
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Older Males Top Use in Other States

Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

By Katie Doyle and Chelsea Sheasley
The Boston University Statehouse Program

Who will use medical pot in Massachusetts?

Although only a few of the medical marijuana states collect detailed demographics, the numbers suggest the likely users will be middle-aged men.

Patients in Arizona and Colorado, the only states to provide patient data by gender, are overwhelmingly male. In Arizona, 73 percent of approved applicants are men. In Colorado, males account for 68 percent of users.
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Other State Laws Offer Guidance and Contradiction

Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

By Katie Doyle and Chelsea Sheasley
The Boston University Statehouse Program

With less than two weeks before Massachusetts’ medical marijuana law goes into effect, significant questions remain on how the voter-approved ballot question will be regulated.

How much marijuana will patients be allowed? Will there be a registry of marijuana patients and prescribing doctors? How will marijuana providers be certified by the state? Where will pot dispensaries be located? What about federal drug laws that consider any marijuana possession a crime?

The task of answering these and other questions falls to the state Department of Public Health – already hard-pressed by the state drug lab and compounding pharmacy scandals. The department’s official line, issued two days after the election, is that it will use other medical marijuana states’ laws a guide.
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Financial Issues Attract More Funding, Ads.

Saturday, November 3rd, 2012

By Edward Donga

The simple rule of ballot issue campaigns comes down to this: The deeper the pockets and the higher the financial stakes, the louder the buzz.

A 2006 ballot question on the sale of beer and wine in food stores saw the two combatants, liquor store owners and food store chains, spend a total of $11 million on campaigns that included a non-stop stream of television ads.

This year’s questions on assisted suicide and medical marijuana – important social issues with little financial impact – have drawn fewer donations, less spending and muted advertising campaigns limited to a few weeks before the vote.
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Session Featured Big Bills, Less Public View

Monday, August 20th, 2012

By Lester Black and Andrea Aldana

BOSTON – Not long after state lawmakers ended their formal work for 2011 with a near-midnight November session, they began congratulating themselves for an exemplary season of legislating.

Among those accomplishments: casinos with the promise of new jobs and tax revenue, a law allowing municipalities to negotiate health insurance for public workers, balancing a budget in tough economic times and stabilizing the state’s pension plan.

“I would say this was one of the most impressive sessions over the past 30 years in terms of legislation passed,” said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Association.
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Other States Have Dialed Back Three-Strikes Law

Friday, August 17th, 2012

By Carolyn Bick and Richard Sobey and reported by Mournira Al HmoudVicky BrittonSteven GraffTara JayakarCorey Kane and Neal J. Riley

After years of lobbying by law enforcement and victims’ groups, Massachusetts appears on the verge of getting a so-called three strikes crime law that would require those convicted of three violent crimes to serve their entire term – even if it is a life sentence.

If Gov. Deval Patrick’s signs the law now on his desk, Massachusetts will join 26 other states with some type of three-strikes law, most of them enacted between 1994 and the early 2000s.

Although it would seem the Legislature is playing catch up, Massachusetts lawmakers may be even further behind the times.

A Boston University Statehouse Program review found that nearly two-thirds of states that passed three-strikes laws in the 1990s have revised them, reducing maximum sentences and giving  judges more latitude in sentencing habitual offenders.

Moreover, statistics from the National Institute of Justice, the U.S. Department of Justice’s research agency, show that the harsher sentences envisioned under these laws were seldom invoked.

“For most of the states, passing three-strikes laws was an exercise in symbolic policy-making,” said Jennifer Walsh, an Azusa Pacific University professor, who has written a book on the three-strikes movement. “It gave lawmakers an opportunity to appear tough on crime.”

As Patrick considers the bill, he faces strong lobbying from both sides of the debate.

The legislation is supported by family victim groups, the Massachusetts Police Association and prosecutors. All say the bill would prevent horrendous deaths such as the 1999 death of Melissa Gosule, who was murdered by a repeat offender and Woburn police officer John Maguire, who was killed by a repeat offender on parole from three life sentences.

Civil rights and prisoner rights groups remain opposed to the bills they say would eliminate leniency in special cases, push the innocent to plead guilty to lesser charges and swell the state’s prison population.

“The long-term consequence would be an average of approximately 2,700[more] prisoners in the Department of Correction,” says James Pingeon, a lawyer with Prisoners’ Legal Services.

But the experience in other states suggests the law will have little impact and likely face revision.

The National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks legislative actions and consequences, says 16 of the 26 states with three-strikes laws have moderated some aspects of the law to allow for lesser sentences. In many states the stricter sentences were rarely applied even before the laws were changed.

-         Connecticut passed a law in 1994 allowing judges to sentence third offenders to life in prison. According to a National Institute of Justice study in 2004, the state sent one person to prison under the law in the first 10 years. The state amended its law in 2008 to allow for more judicial discretion, shifting from mandatory maximum prison terms to a range of sentences based on the offense.

-         In 2001, the Louisiana Legislature removed mandatory sentences for some nonviolent offenses and cut many drug sentences in half to save about $60 million, according to a report from the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent organization that studies  incarceration issues.

- In 2010, South Carolina adopted an omnibus crime bill that increased the number of crimes that qualified as a strike, but also joined at least 10 other states that give judges more discretion in determining when to apply a strike, according to the conference.

- Georgia and Florida have been the exception. With 7,631 inmates in Georgia and 1,628 in Florida facing longer terms. Florida has since trimmed back on its law.

Other states that have eased their three-strikes laws include Colorado, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.

In November, Californians will vote on a ballot question to require a third strike to be for a serious or violent crime.

Alison Lawrence, policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said there is no one reason states have changed their laws.

“States are always re-examining their laws to make sure they fit the principles of sentencing and you can’t attribute one single reason to it,” she said.

Under the pending Massachusetts bill, offenders charged with a third violent offense could have to serve the full term of their sentence without hope for an earlier parole. The bill covers 40 different crimes as violent offenses including murder and manslaughter, illegal sale of firearms, and distributing child pornography.

Massachusetts already has a habitual offender law that requires someone convicted multiple times serve at least half of his or her sentence before becoming eligible for parole.

The new law would create two classes of habitual offenders. Both would serve longer sentences.

A person convicted as a first-class offender – defined as someone with a total of three crimes listed under the law – would serve the maximum sentence for a crime, without parole eligibility. A second-class offender – a definition that considers the length of prior sentences and not the crime itself – would serve at least two-thirds of the sentence before becoming eligible for parole.

Lawrence said the Massachusetts law would not be unusually harsh, even when compared to states that have relaxed their initial legislation.

“Having violent offenders serve a longer time under a three-strikes policy than nonviolent offenders is similar to many other state laws,” she said.

To balance the impact on state prisons the bill reduces mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offences. But the reductions would amount to only a year or two off current sentences, not enough to offset the impact of the three-strikes provisions.

Central to the debate over the bill are the changes the three-strikes provision would have on criminal sentences and the impact those sentences would have on the state’s criminal justice system, prison population and resulting costs.

According to a report by the state Sentencing Commission, which analyzed 2009 data, 235 people would have fallen under the House’s version of the three-strikes law in that year with 28 considered first-class offenders. The Senate bill would have affected 307 people with 113 as first-class offenders.

With the DOC’s average cost of housing one inmate at $46,000 per year, the House version could cost the state $57 million more per year if the proposed sentencing laws had been rigidly enforced; the Senate plan would mean an additional $96 million. The state spent $431 million to keep 9,387 people incarcerated in 2010.

Such numbers have fueled opponents’ arguments against the legislation. Many point to the impact California’s three-strikes law that, according to a study by that state’s auditor, has added an average of nine years to prisoners’ sentences at the cost of $19.2 billion to the state.

But California does not offer a useful comparison because its three-strikes law mandates maximum sentences for non-violent criminals.

The key issue will be prosecutorial discretion on how to charge a defendant.  Legal experts say district attorneys are likely to offer plea bargain deals for guilty pleas in exchange for charges not covered under a three-strikes law.

“We could definitely see more guilty pleas and fewer trials,” said Peter Elikann, a member of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s criminal defense committee. “Some will be offered a lesser prison time, and by pleading guilty, it wouldn’t be their third strike, and they wouldn’t go to jail forever.”

Maggie Filler, a member of Stanford University’s Three Strikes Project, said that has been the case in California.

“You have no idea how many people decide to plea to a lesser crime and accept a lesser sentence to avoid the three strikes penalty who wouldn’t have gone to prison otherwise,” she said.

Special Report: Openness and Productivity on Beacon Hill

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

USA522letterBWPrintSession Featured Big Bills, Less Public View

BOSTON – Not long after state lawmakers ended their formal work for 2011 with a near-midnight November session, they began congratulating themselves for an exemplary season of legislating.

Among those accomplishments: casinos with the promise of new jobs and tax revenue, a law allowing municipalities to negotiate health insurance for public workers, balancing a budget in tough economic times and stabilizing the state’s pension plan.

“I would say this was one of the most impressive sessions over the past 30 years in terms of legislation passed,” said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Association.

But how much really got done this year, and, more importantly how much of the legislative process that moved these bills to law took place in public?

Numbers can be interpreted in different ways. Of the 206 bills passed in 2011, 39 – or 19 percent – affect the entire state – many in significant ways. Another 25 percent of the bills signed by Gov. Deval Patrick established sick leave banks for public employees. The rest were administrative laws pertaining to individual cities and towns, such as alcohol licenses and land transfers.

But behind the issue of legislative productivity looms a larger question about the process that moved various bills down the road, or left them on the roadside. A survey by the Boston University Statehouse Program of 19 major legislative committees that shape and move legislation found this process increasingly takes place outside the public view.

Among the findings:

- The staff for 15 of the committees polled said some voting is done through e-mails rather than in open executive sessions. The staff of 10 committees said the votes were not available to the public. State law requires that roll-call votes in executive sessions be recorded and made public. But committee rules do not address e-mail voting.

- Minutes and other details of committee meetings were not available from 18 of the committees, according to their staff. State law does not require such documentation of legislative committees, although it is required by other Massachusetts.

- Among the lack of documentation are records of attendance by committee members. Observers say fewer committee members now show up for public hearings as the work of the committees takes place through phone discussion or e-mail polls.

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Special Report: Mass. Takes on Mission Helping Vets Find Work

Monday, January 2nd, 2012

By Andrea Aldana

Since 2001, over 37,000 Massachusetts residents have served in Afghanistan or Iraq.  Now, with the official end of Iraq War, the Patrick administration wants to help returning troops find jobs.

It won’t be an easy. While the U.S. unemployment rate stood at 10 percent in March, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that unemployment for those who served after September 2001 had a rate of 11.5 percent. Veterans between ages 18 to 24 face an unemployment rate of 21.5 percent.

Those who work with veterans say finding a job is their first mission when they return home.

“The biggest [concern] they mention is obviously the segue into employment,” said Roxanne Whitbeck Plymouth’s Veterans’ Service officer.

The importance of jobs is illustrated by other numbers. Veterans represent 11 percent of the adult U.S. civilian population, but 26 percent of the homeless population, according to the Homeless Research Institute.

The Patrick Administration announced a new series of initiatives in November to support the hiring of veterans, including a task force to promote the benefits of hiring veterans and increased partnerships with potential employers through the Massachusetts Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives.

Employers can also advertise their support with a “Proud Employer of Massachusetts Veterans” plaque if they employ a veterans.

The state also has 34 one-stop free career centers with veterans’ employment representatives whose assist in job search and resume writing.

Vincent Perrone, a retired Air Force officer who is president of Veterans Inc. , said  such lessons are critical.

“When I left the military, they had a voluntary transitional assistance program, which these days are pretty much mandatory,” said Perrone, whose Worcester-based company provides aid to veterans . “I learned how to rewrite my resume. I hadn’t gone out on a job interview in 20 years.”

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray said the state is working to get the message across that veterans tend to be goal and career-oriented, as well as inform employers of tax credits they receive.

“We’re doing better on education and outreach but we can certainly do better,” he said.

The governor also created a subcommittees on veteran services for student veterans and re-employment within his advisory council .

“Fundamentally, we have an obligation. That’s something the governor and I feel strongly about,” said Murray, who chairs the Governor’s Advisory Council on Veteran’s Services, which Patrick established in April 2007.

Murray said the council grew out of meetings he and Patrick had with veterans during the 2006 gubernatorial campaign.

“In Westfield, one of the veterans talked about how it [the council] existed in the past, and it was a good opportunity to bring different veteran organizations and veterans from different wars and conflicts to talk about issues veterans were having,” Murray said.

The council works with the Department of Veteran Services, reviewing state and federal laws and programs relating to veterans.
“It’s been a great vehicle to make sure we are meeting the needs of veterans that have served in past wars and conflicts and making sure we’re prepared for the wave of coming home,” Murray said.
John Yazwinski, president and CEO of Father Bill’s & MainSpring, a non-profit organization that provides emergency shelter and workforce training for homeless veterans, works closely with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as well as the Massachusetts. Department of Veteran Services.

“We have a contract with the VA to shelter veteran families and individuals, and we have a contract with the DVS where we provide homeless veterans with workforce opportunities,” he said.

The organization, which has offices in Quincy and Brockton, assisted 200 local homeless veterans in 2010. Some 90 participated in the workforce program, according to Yazwinski. Fifty veterans found permanent employment.
The new initiatives continue the state’s leadership in veteran’s affairs. Massachusetts is the only state to offer vets financial assistance, including food, clothing and housing supplies, according to a report issued by Murray’s office.

Other benefits unique to the state include $2,000 annual payments to disabled veterans, Gold Star parents, who have lost their son or daughter during service, and Gold Star spouses, if not remarried.

Massachusetts gives $1,000 to soldiers who return from active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan as a Welcome Home Bonus. An additional $500 is given for additional tours in the war zones.

Massachusetts has also led in reducing homelessness among veterans. In 2011, there were 1,268 homeless veterans in Massachusetts, down 18 percent from the previous year. The homeless rate declined 19 percent from 2000 to 2011, compared to 12 percent in the nation, according to Paulette Song, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
Future plans include a $2.86 million budget proposal for fiscal year 2013, providing $700,000 for Veterans Quit Smoking Patch Initiative and extending property tax exemptions to Gold Star widows until they remarry.

“Massachusetts is second to none in the U.S. to resources for our veterans,” Yazwinski said. “We feel very confident because of the commitment we see from the VA and the Patrick-Murray administration.”

Father Bill’s & MainSpring works closely with local veterans’ service officers, providing information about services and referring those who may be at risk for homelessness.

State law requires each city and town to have a veterans’ service officer.

“They really are the point people,” said Murray. “[Secretary of Veterans Services] Coleman Nee works with them on a daily basis and they have a strong partnership statewide.”

Murray said there was a strong collaboration between the VA and veteran service officers and state government.

“We are very aggressive in acquiring federal grants and will continue to be aggressive,” he said. “It’s really been a concern of this administration to secure federal funding.”

In 2010, the state secured two homeless veterans’ reintegration program grants and one workforce investment program grant from the federal government.

Yazwinksi said he hoped the federal and state government would continue such efforts as a new wave of troops come home.
“They’ve done so many tours. They’re coming back with PTSD that we as a country need to help with,” he said.

Special Report: How to Score a Legislature

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

Evaluating Productivity a Tough Job With State Comparisons List

By Krista Kano and Alyssa Moni

In which state would you rather be a constituent?

State A pays its full-time legislators over $60,000 a year, plus hefty compensations for committee chairs. Their pay reflects a smaller legislative body where each representative has a larger constituency.

State B pays its part-time legislators under $15,000 for the year with no extra compensation besides travel expenses. There are more legislators, each representing a smaller number of people.

An economical-minded constituent may opt for State B, which pays its entire legislative body what State A may pay a single chairman. But a constituent looking for a more productive legislature may choose State A. because its lawmakers put in more hours and have a considerably higher monetary incentive to serve constituents.

It’s a theoretical toss up, but in reality there are distinctly different results.

Massachusetts’ 200 legislators are each paid $61,132.99 a year; committee chairmen get $7,500 to $15,000 extra. In 2010 of the 5,363 bills that were filed, 476, less than 9 percent, were enacted into law.

New Hampshire’s 424 legislators, comprising the largest legislature in the U.S., are paid $200 a year for a six-month session running from January to June. Last year Granite State lawmakers filed 946 bills, passing 376 into law – a rate of about 40 percent.

How would you score it? Massachusetts passed more bills, but at a lower rate of bills filed. With less time and far less money, New Hampshire may seem more efficient. But there are other, less measurable factors: What was the complexity of the bills? What was the level of debate?

“The work of a legislature can be affected by many factors – such as the economy, whether it is a redistricting year, if there are any major federal or state court cases, or any disasters in the state,” says Brenda Erickson, senior research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “These are all the kinds of things that impact the productivity and priorities in a state legislature.”

One thing is for certain. Massachusetts lawmakers start out a session with a much fuller plate. The national average for bill introductions is 2,209 bills per year, according to Erickson. The average for the Massachusetts General Court, however, is over 7,000 bills.

“Massachusetts is very hard to compare when talking about bill introduction because it is the only state where anyone can introduce a bill, even just a citizen off the street,” she said.

According to John Regan, executive vice president of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s two-year session also complicates comparisons to other states.

“The odd number years tend to be a little lighter because they’re laying the ground work which gets finalized in the second half which are the even years,” he said.

Regan, who closely follows Beacon Hill for his association, notes that what a legislature chooses not to act on is as important as what it chooses to move forward.

“There’s a balance between quantity and quality and I would argue for quality,” he said. “Just because they process a lot of bills and move a lot of bills does not make a legislature productive. It’s not like a pencil factory and we’re counting how many pencils go out and how fast. The Legislature doesn’t balance that way.”

And this year, according to Regan, quality was focused on balancing the budget.

“The amount of time you spend managing your finances is a lot more when money is tight,” he says.

Another factor is the way states handle their budgets. New Hampshire is one of 19 states that have biennial budgets, meaning the legislature debates the budget on even-numbered years. On odd numbered years, the legislature can focus all its efforts on other issues. Massachusetts and 31 other states write a new budget each year, taking up months of legislative time.

It would be expected that ideological debate would consume the legislative process in New Hampshire, which had an evenly divided House (222 Democrats, and 176 Republicans) and Senate (14 Democrats and 10 Republicans) in 2010, but it seems that that isn’t the case.

Massachusetts, with 142 Democrats and 15 Republicans in the House and 35 Democrats and five Republicans in the Senate, still does not pass as many bills as New Hampshire.

“Each state is unique,” Erickson said. “And that trickles down to the legislature. Each legislature represents a microcosm of its state’s people, traditions, and political cultures, and it can be impacted by them.”

Special Report: In the Public Eye

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

Massachusetts Lags Behind in Legislative Public Access

By Katie Lannan and Adam Tamburin

Although the Web has made some Statehouse information and online videos of hearings a click away for interested citizens, the use of the Internet has become a double-edged sword, limiting other aspects of transparency.

Staff members on 15 of 22 major committees surveyed by the Boston University Statehouse Program said members sometimes vote via e-mail. Rules about public access to these emails results are vague. Ten of the committee staff polled said the votes were not available to the public.

Lawmakers are increasingly absent from their committee’s public hearings. Many sessions are conducted with a fraction of the committee members present. Even sponsors of legislation are often no shows.

The extent of the problem is hard to measure. Only six of 22 committees surveyed said they took attendance. Few make available the minutes of their sessions.

Some legislators and observers say shrinking and roll call voting are symptoms of a trend that concentrates the decision making to the legislative leadership.

Peter Ubertaccio, professor of political science at Stonehill College, says this trend is a natural product of a firm political majority. Democrats have overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate

“It’s probably par for the course,” he said.

Ubertaccio said committee chairs use their power to set schedules that decide the fate of a bill in conjunction with party leaders; the chair can sit on bills that are controversial or don’t fit into the leadership’s agenda.

“Typically, bills that the leadership doesn’t want to come to the floor don’t come to the floor,” he said. “They can do that in a variety of ways that are outside of the public viewing.”

There was an attempt, led by Republicans at the beginning of the session to require all committee votes be posted on the Legislature’s website. It was defeated. Rep. Dan Winslow, R-Norfolk, plans to propose new rules that would require committees to meet in person and produce records that would illuminate the process of lawmaking for Massachusetts citizens.

“It’s the democratic process. I mean, we represent people,” Winslow said. “I think it’s important for government to be open and transparent to the best [extent] that it can be.”

But it’s not just a partisan issue. Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, is sponsoring a bill that would make more public records available online. Eldridge said government transparency is important at all levels.

“There are decisions being made every day that impact people’s lives and businesses,” Eldridge said. “That information should be as transparent as possible.”

Massachusetts residents can find the full text of a bill on the Legislature’s website and follow its status. Viewers can watch live and archived webcasts of floor proceedings and selected committee hearings.

But Massachusetts remains behind the times when compared to other states, Data from the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that all states except for Rhode Island offer live webcasts of legislative sessions, with 33 states archiving them and 35 posting live webcasts of committee hearings.

Twenty-one other states, including Connecticut and New Jersey, make it easier for interested citizens to follow the process through bill tracking email subscriptions, which send out updates when the legislature acts on a particular piece of legislation.

The National Conference of State Legislatures also says 14 states offer other email subscription services, such as Maine’s list for notification of public hearings.

Twelve states allow citizens to create personalized lists of bills they want to follow, free of charge, with another five states offering the same service for a fee. Massachusetts does not provide this service.

Eldridge said inaccessibility of information is often an unintended consequence of cutbacks. Many of the legislative aides surveyed said they don’t have the staff to keep formal minutes.

Whatever the reasons, Eldridge said a lack of openness can still foster a cynical and skeptical electorate.

“Unfortunately, the government is afraid of providing the information to the public or they don’t want to let them know all the reasons for why decisions are being made,” he said. “The fact that there have been some scandals at the government level contributes to that.”

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