Massachusetts Three-Strikes Sentencing Bill Draws Criticism


Hat tip once again to Lois Ahrens at The Real Cost of Prisons, who sent me more articles and a factsheet from Families Against Mandatory Minimums about three-strikes sentencing.

Here’s FAMM’s summary of how the legislation currently pending in the Massachusetts statehouse would change our existing three-strikes law:

Current law: Requires maximum sentence for any felony conviction if defendant was previously sentenced twice to three or more years in prison. Parole is possible after serving half of maximum sentence.

Bills passed in November: The House and Senate both passed habitual offender bills. Both bills rewrite the existing habitual-offender law and add a new section to the law. In other words, both bills provide two different ways to prosecute someone as an habitual offender.

How bills would change ‘3-strikes’ law House bill

■Option 1 — changes to existing law:
• Removes requirement that prior felony convictions must result in prison sentence of at least three years. As a result, any two felony convictions that result in any sentence to state prison (could be as little as one year) would count as first two “strikes.” Any felony conviction would count as third strike, resulting in maximum sentence possible.
• Pushes back parole-eligibility date until two-thirds of maximum sentence has been served.
■ Option 2 — new section:
• Creates a list of about 60 dangerous or serious offenses, more finally tuned list than Senate’s.
• Like Senate bill, all three offenses must be from the list, although sentences for first two offenses must have been to state prison.
• Like Senate bill, defendant gets maximum sentence possible for third offense, with no parole. Critics say this section, as with the Senate bill, offers no access to parole.

Senate bill
■Option 1 — changes to existing law:
• Pushes back parole-eligibility date until two-thirds of maximum sentence has been served.
■ Option 2 — new section:
• Creates list of about 60 offenses; most — but not all — are dangerous or serious.
• All three offenses must be from the list.
• Sentences for the first two offenses could have been as little as one day in jail or prison.
• Defendant gets maximum sentence possible for third offense with no parole.
Critics say this section is problematic because it would include those who received very short sentences for the first two “strikes” due to a minor role in the offense or other mitigating factors. Also, critics say, the section offers no access to parole.

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This article by Lisa Redmond, from the Feb. 22 Lowell Sun newspaper, lays out the background and arguments for and against the legislation:

The state’s former corrections commissioner is blasting a proposed bill that could restrict parole and increase sentences for three-time convicted felons, saying the law is too broad and an overreaction to high-profile crimes.

“We are driven by high-profile crimes and our sympathy toward victims, but individual mistakes in judgment cannot be cured by systematic reform,” said Kathleen Dennehy, former commissioner of the state Department of Correction….

…One of the criticisms of both the House and Senate bills is that there is no room for judges to consider mitigating factors, essentially handcuffing judges to specific sentences, Dennehy said.

Critics have also described the law an overreaction to the December 2010 murder of Woburn Police Officer John Maguire.

Maguire, a Wilmington resident, was killed in a shootout during a botched jewelry-store heist with career criminal Dominic Cinelli, who had been released on parole despite receiving three life sentences for various crimes.

Maguire’s murder triggered an outcry from the public to fire members of the state Parole Board who released Cinelli on parole. The board has since been revamped and members replaced by Gov. Deval Patrick.

“The death of Officer Maguire was more like a wake-up call than an overreaction,” said Laurie Myers, spokeswoman for Community Voices, a victim-advocacy group.

Myers, of Chelmsford, noted that the three-strikes bill was filed in response to the Maguire murder and the 1999 slaying of Melissa Gosule at the hands of a repeat offender who was released from prison.

“Our communities are not equipped to handle violent criminals and suggesting that they are is not only irresponsible it’s dangerous,” Myers said.

“The number one priority of the Legislature should be to protect our communities, not find excuses when they fail, or choose to make other budget items a priority,” she said.

State Rep. Kevin Murphy, of Lowell, who is also a defense attorney, said, “This is a reasonable piece of legislation.”

While opponents of the law have stirred the debate by saying that convictions for minor offenses will count as strikes, Murphy said that’s not the case.

“The list has very serious crimes,” Murphy said. The crimes include: rape, assault and battery on a child or elderly causing serious injury, and armed assault in a dwelling.

In his State of the Commonwealth address last month, Patrick said he supports a “balanced bill” that has “some reforms on the habitual offender” to be “as tough as we should be on the worst of the worst.”

Opponents fear the law would result in increasing a prison population that is already bursting at the seams, with taxpayers footing the bill.

The Center for Church and Prison estimates the three strikes law would trigger an increase of more than 1,500 more prisoners each year or $125 million a year to the state’s $1 billion-per-year corrections’ budget.

Read the whole article here.

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In the Worcester Telegram, Clive McFarlane’s Feb. 17 editorial contends that three-strikes will permanently condemn people who could have been rehabilitated:

Jamie Domiano-Ayers’ husband was an addict and, as a result, she became one, too.

And when her husband landed in jail, she said, she had to come up with the money to satisfy her addiction.

She did, illegally, compiling a rap sheet between her mid-20s and early 30s that included convictions on assault and battery with dangerous weapons and breaking-and-entering charges.

But today, Ms. Domiano-Ayers, 49, has recovered from that dark period of her life.

She talked of her successful drug treatment, of her educational attainment — an associate’s degree in business administration in 2004 and her current pursuit of an associate’s degree in human services.

She is also proud that she has helped raise her five children to lead strong and productive lives.

But successful rehabilitation stories such as hers will likely occur a lot less in the future if Massachusetts lawmakers push through a “three strikes” bill that dramatically increases jail time for repeat criminal offenders, according to several speakers at a forum Wednesday at St. Andrew the Apostle Church on Spaulding Street.

According to speakers at the forum, a legislative conference committee is weighing two versions of a three strikes bill, both of which would increase the types of crimes for which an offender could be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Tatum Pritchard, a lawyer with Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, said 688 infractions are classified as felonies in Massachusetts. Under current law, a third conviction on any of these felonies could draw the maximum sentence, with or without parole opportunities, she said.

Under the Senate’s version of the bill, 59 of the 688 felonies would draw maximum sentences, including 22 felonies that would draw life sentences. The sentences for these 59 felonies would be served without parole.

Currently, according to Ms. Prichard, only a murder conviction carries life without parole in the state.

The House version of the three strikes law reduces the number of felonies that carry maximum sentences without parole to 55, removing four that lawmakers felt were not serious enough offenses to meet such harsh penalties.

Ms. Pritchard said her organization is pushing to remove at least nine more low-level felonies from the list of 55.

She also noted that under current law, a defendant must serve three years or more in state prison before any of his convictions qualifies under the three strikes law.

However, under the House bill, that incarceration period for each conviction would be reduced to one day or more in state prison.

More significantly, qualifying conviction time for three strikes offenses that carry the maximum sentences without parole has been reduced to one day or more in a state prison in the House bill and to one day or more in any facility in the Senate bill.

“This means that people who have only spent a day or two in a county jail and who have never been to state prison can now get the maximum sentence without parole on a third conviction,” Ms. Prichard said.

She is also troubled that unlike the three strikes law in other states such as California, the bills before the Massachusetts Legislature remove judges’ discretion from sentencing.

That means the state’s 14 district attorneys would have the upper hand in these cases, she said.

Ms. Domiano-Ayers, who is now a member of the Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement board of directors, said she is skeptical that prosecutors would show much empathy for a defendant with low-level convictions such as hers.

“If these bills were the law of the land years ago, I would have been put away for 10 years and that would have had a devastating impact on my family,” she said. “My children more than likely would have been placed in foster care, and there is no telling what would have happened to them.”

Critics of the bills say they are not asking lawmakers to be soft on crime, but for them to check the abundance of available research on three strikes law and to listen to both sides before making a decision, steps legislators seem unwilling to take, according to Benjamin Thompson, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition in Boston. He who spoke at Wednesday’s forum.

“They (legislators) are people of good will who have made a bad decision by pushing public policy that was developed and crafted on emotion alone,” he said.

He is right, but there is still time for lawmakers to act rationally. There are too many lives at stake for them not to listen to both sides on this issue.

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