Massachusetts Considers Punitive “Three-Strikes” Law

Even as pressure builds in California to overturn their “three-strikes” criminal sentencing law, the Massachusetts legislature is trying to slip a similar bill under the public’s radar. Three-strikes laws impose harsh mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders, regardless of the seriousness of the third crime. Thus, for instance, a person with two prior felonies can be sentenced to 25-to-life for a nonviolent offense such as drug possession or petty theft. My pen pal “Conway” is one victim of this system.

This unreasonable policy has contributed to such severe overcrowding in California prisons that the US Supreme Court recently ruled that conditions there violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Why would we want to bring this problem to Massachusetts?

A letter that ran Tuesday in our local paper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, eloquently makes the case against this proposed law. It was authored by Leslie Walker, the executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, and Lois Ahrens, the director of The Real Cost of Prisons Project of Northampton.

Unless recent legislation that fast-tracked both the Massachusetts House and Senate is slowed down and reconsidered, Massachusetts prisons will rapidly move into the ranks of the most overcrowded and expensive in the nation.

The two “Three Strikes and You’re Out” bills, which passed in the final moments of the November legislative session, will make a bad situation worse.

Look at two examples:

MCI-Concord, meant to hold 614 prisoners, is jammed with 1,345 men for a 219 percent occupancy rate.

MCI-Framingham was meant to hold 388 women and now houses 445 – a 115 percent occupancy rate.

Worst of all is MCI-Framingham’s Awaiting Trial Unit, where 215 women who have been convicted of no crime are crammed into a space designed for 64 – more than 330 percent the intended occupancy.

The number of prisoners in Department of Correction custody is at an all-time high. Overcrowding averages 143 percent over capacity. The corrections department has reported that parole releases have dropped by 56 percent in 2011, mostly due to parole practices and policies promoted by the Patrick administration. Even without the new law, Massachusetts faces increased corrections costs of approximately $100 million dollars a year.

An analysis performed on sentencing data provided by the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission illustrates how costly implementation of a “Three Strikes” law would be to taxpayers: an annual burden of between $75 million to $125 million could be added because between 1,500 to 2,500 prisoners could be sentenced to life with parole.

This means that the commonwealth will have to build new prison space at a cost of $100,000 per cell since our prisons are far beyond capacity. We are already paying $1 billion a year simply to incarcerate men and women, with each costing taxpayers almost as much as a year’s tuition at one of the Valley’s private colleges – approximately $50,000.

We will also keep paying the annual costs to house the same prisoner over and over because the current system is too strained to take steps that might keep prisoners from committing another crime – only 2.4 percent of the corrections department budget is spent on programming.

Education – the more one has, the more effective it is – has been proven to be one of the most successful ways of keeping people from returning to prison, but like other programs proven to rehabilitate, it is hampered without funds.

The chance for a Massachusetts prisoner to leave crime through such programs is nearly zero.

The current “Three Strikes” bills are not cost effective because they are too broadly drawn. For example, the Senate version of the bill sweeps in nonviolent convictions and mandates the third strike maximum punishment even if the previous cases were not serious enough to require a sentence of more than a day in jail. The bills would not allow judges to consider how long ago the offenses occurred or any mitigating circumstances. This would continue to overfill our prisons.

No government official wants to be labeled as “soft on crime.” But officials in other states have advocated for smart prison reform that have saved millions for taxpayers and increased public safety.

Malcolm Young, of Northwestern Law School’s Bluhm Legal Clinic, writing in The Crime Report notes, “Several states are moving ahead with carefully researched plans and strategies grounded in “best practices,” bent on reducing prison incarceration and corrections costs. Among them are Ohio, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi.”

These and other states, like New York, Michigan and New Jersey, have also reduced their prison populations with shorter sentences for nonviolent crimes, elimination of mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenses and creative alternatives to prison. The result is hundreds of millions of dollars in reduced corrections spending and lower recidivism rates.

If the current “Three Strikes” bills pass, we’ll be wasting millions of dollars while doing nothing to cut crime in Massachusetts – and continue to crowd prisons. Forget education. Forget rehabilitation.

Without such tools, those we sentence to prison will get out with even fewer resources than they have now and that means compromising the public’s safety. We urge legislators to take several steps back and consider the consequences of the hurriedly made and costly decisions which will be with us for decades.

To get involved, visit Write or call your state representatives (see House and Senate websites to find your legislator’s contact information).

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