Posts Tagged ‘Neal J Riley’

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.

Limits eyed on EBT cards

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

By Neal J. Riley, The Lowell Sun

BOSTON — A bipartisan group of 18 legislators announced yesterday their support for a bill to restrict Massachusetts welfare recipients’ discretionary use of assistance money by banning their ability to withdraw cash from ATMs with electronic benefit cards.

The lawmakers, frustrated by a recommendation by a commission to only ban the use of the cards at nail salons, tattoo parlors, firearms dealers, bars, smoke shops or spas, said more steps are needed to curb further abuse in the welfare system.

“This report failed to make any substantive changes and place restriction and oversight on the $415 million a year this state hands out in cash assistance to people, and taxpayers deserve oversight of these funds,” Rep. Shaunna O’Connell, R-Taunton, said at a press conference. “There have been too many problems with this program and minor changes are not going to fix that.”

Commission votes to allow some tax breaks to expire

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

By Neal J. Riley, The Lowell Sun

BOSTON — A commission created by the Legislature is planning to call for the end of some of the scores of tax breaks and credits that add up to a total of $26 billion in waived revenue collections each year.

The Tax Expenditure Commission, made up of legislators and policymakers, voted to adopt Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez’s recommendations to categorize existing tax breaks and allow some to expire if not reapproved by the Legislature after five years.

The commission’s final recommendations will be issued in a report on the state’s tax-expenditure policies later in the month.

Greater Lowell’s GOP freshmen state reps out to make their mark

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

By Neal J. Riley, The Lowell Sun

BOSTON — Marc Lombardo says he didn’t come to Beacon Hill to go along and get along.

That pressure to fit in became obvious when the freshman representative from Billerica joined with a small clutch of new and veteran Republicans to hold up a spending bill for two days last fall in order to get a detailed breakdown of what was being funded.

“Many of my colleagues said, ‘Hey let it go, just let it go,'” Lombardo says, sitting in his cramped Statehouse office lined with pictures of Abraham Lincoln, George H.W. Bush and more than one portrait of Ronald Reagan. “I did not come to Beacon Hill to be part of the problem. I came here to be part of the solution.”

Patrick stands his ground vs. proposed bill

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

By Neal J. Riley, The Lowell Sun

BOSTON — In the wake of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s shooting death by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida, Gov. Deval Patrick said yesterday he would oppose a bill similar to that state’s much-scrutinized “Stand Your Ground” law.

“Well, I don’t think that bill is going to move, and if it were to move, it’s not going to get past my desk,” Patrick told in a radio interview on WTKK-FM. “We don’t need a ‘Stand Your Ground’ bill, and I don’t entirely understand what the argument was for it in Florida.”

Filed for the past five years by state Sen. Stephen Brewer, D-Barre, on behalf of the Gun Owners Action League, the legislation would protect individuals who use deadly force against another person if they fear they are about to be severely injured or killed “in any place that they have a right to be.”

Dracut fire hero is hailed at Statehouse

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

By Neal J. Riley, The Lowell Sun

BOSTON — Nick Theodore was about to get in the shower when he saw smoke through the bathroom window. Adrenaline pumping, the 19-year-old from Dracut ran outside to find his grandfather lying unconscious by his three-story garage that was sprouting flames.

“You just go, you don’t think,” related Theodore, who was commended for his actions yesterday at the Statehouse by Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, and Rep. Colleen Garry, D-Dracut. “I picked him up and said, ‘Pop, we gotta go, we gotta get you out of here.'”

Theodore’s father, Dino, said his son undoubtedly saved the life of 82-year-old Aristomenes Theodore, who has Parkinson’s disease.

Lowell’s MBTA service spared

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

By Neal J. Riley, The Lowell Sun

BOSTON — Service on the Lowell commuter-rail line has been spared under a budget proposal state transportation officials unveiled yesterday morning, but many commuters will be slapped with fare increases as high as 30 percent for a one-way ticket to Boston.

The cost for a single-ride ticket is jumping from $6.75 to $8.75 at the Lowell stop. A ticket at the North Billerica stop will climb to $8 from $6.25, and a ticket at the Wilmington stop will climb to $6.75 from $5.25.

The cost of a single-ride ticket on the Fitchburg line is also increasing. Those who board the train in Littleton will pay $9.25, up from $7.25, while those who board the train in Shirley and Ayer will pay $10, up from $7.75.

Graves sets sights on Bastien in GOP primary for state rep

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

By Neal J. Riley, Sentinel & Enterprise

BOSTON — Scott Graves might still be in the pharmacology field instead of running for state representative if he didn’t find so distasteful the idea of chopping the heads off lab rats that he came to see as pets.

Before practicing law and getting into politics, the 48-year-old Gardner city councilor earned a master’s degree in pharmacology at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, where he researched Alzheimer’s disease. He trained 100 white lab rats to memorize a path through a maze, and then tested different drugs on the rodents to see which would impair their memory.

The only way to figure out if the drugs were affecting the rats’ minds was to decapitate them with a guillotine-like device, and Graves eventually decided he no longer wanted a career involving animal testing.

Committee endorses ‘preregister’ voting law

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

By Neal J. Riley, The Lowell Sun

BOSTON — A legislative committee has endorsed a plan to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to “preregister” to vote that advocates say would add 20,000 registered voters to the state.

“As a result of these reforms, there will be increased voter participation and confidence in elections,” said Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, the chair of the Joint Committee on Election Laws, said at a press conference yesterday.

The committee approved the comprehensive bill that would also make voter-registration forms available online, require post-election audits of voting machines and mandate training for local election officials on the proposed law.

Bill aims to keep power lines clear

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

By Neal J. Riley, The Lowell Sun

BOSTON — Public outcry over lengthy power outages after last October’s snowstorm and Tropical Storm Irene last August has prompted a state lawmaker to encourage cities and towns to fine utility companies that do not keep wires along public streets and highways free of overgrown tree limbs.

“If you want to use our land to run your wires, you’ve got to keep them free of tree branches,” Rep. Dan Winslow, R-Norfolk, said in an interview.

Winslow has sent model bylaws to cities and towns that, if adopted, would require utilities to keep wires over public land clear of branches and brush. Once notified by a municipality that a utility is violating the law, the utility would have 60 days to trim the tree or face a $100 fine per day for each tree.