Boston Globe Critiques Three-Strikes Sentencing Plan

Lois Ahrens at The Real Cost of Prisons, a Massachusetts prisoner advocacy site, forwarded me this editorial from Northeaster University criminologist James Alan Fox about potential overbreadth in the three-strikes sentencing bill currently under consideration in the Statehouse. An excerpt follows.

…By current statute, third-time felons charged and convicted as habitual offenders must serve one-half of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole consideration. Crafted in response to two particularly high profile murder cases involving repeat offenders, both the Senate and the House bills call for increasing the threshold from one-half to two-thirds of the maximum sentence imposed.

But the more significant change comes with the second portion (Subsection b) of these bills, which makes those habitual offenders who had committed one of a long list of nearly 60 crimes ineligible for parole consideration (as well as “good time” reduction). These prisoners would need to serve the maximum with no gifts from a parole board (or a dying royalty).

A close examination of the list of crimes raises two concerns. The first involves the overly broad range of offenses among those that disallow parole, and the other relates to the subset that is punishable by life without parole.

While the array of serious felonies appropriately includes such atrocities as homicide and rape, lesser offenses such as stalking in violation of a restraining order and assault with intent to commit robbery would also make the third-timer ineligible for early release on parole.

Particularly curious, if not problematic, is the fate of those convicted on a smaller subset of crimes that are punishable by as much as a life sentence. At the severity extreme, there is, of course, murder. A first degree murder conviction already carries a life sentence without parole eligibility, whether the offender is a first-timer or a repeat criminal. A habitual offender convicted of second degree murder would also, by virtue of the pending legislation, receive life without parole.

Not so reasonable, however, is that many other habitual offenders convicted of crimes far short of murder could also be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. If charged as a habitual offender, defendants convicted of such crimes as armed robbery and burglary could be sent away to prison forever.

While I do not mean to minimize the severity of such transgressions, they do not rise to the gravity level of homicide. Life without parole should be reserved for the very worst of the worst, and robbers and burglars — even habitual ones — do not fall in the category of those who should never ever experience freedom again. The most serious crimes short of homicide require long sentences, but not life-long ones.


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