Cambridge, MA, July 27, 2012 --(PR.com
)-- Massachusetts House and Senate negotiators have reached an agreement to revamp the state’s hotly debated criminal sentencing laws, after the two branches approved widely different versions of a criminal justice reform bill late last year. At the crux of the bill was Massachusetts “Three Strikes” law, which bars parole for three-time felons convicted of violent crimes, ranging from murder to certain types of assault. The conference committee, made up of six members, finally came to an agreement on a sentencing reform that avoids prison overcrowding while appropriately punishing habitual offenders. The repeat violent offender initiative agreed to by the conference panel covers 46 crimes in all. Under the accord, felons would have to be sentenced to at least three years in prison for one of the 46 crimes to qualify as a strike on their record. After a third strike, or for felons serving two life sentences, parole eligibility would be eliminated. The compromise was approved on a 5-1 vote. Governor Deval Patrick has stated he will only sign a “balanced bill,” and he will now decide if this agreement meets that definition.
There were other issues in addition to habitual offenders of violent crimes considered in the bill, notably limiting mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders. The committee agreed to reduce the mandatory sentences for each weight class of drug trafficking and distribution and intent to distribute crimes. The committee also reduced the “school zone” for drug offense purposes to 300 feet and have eliminated school zone offenses from midnight to 5 a.m.
According to Boston trial attorney and former head of the Middlesex County Drug Unit, Peter Bellotti of the Bellotti Law Group, “This bill is a long time coming. Too many lives and families have been ruined by lengthy mandatory minimum sentences that, for the most part, never fit the crime. The Massachusetts Three Strikes law never made sense…it targeted the wrong people.” Bellotti went on to note that “judges need more discretion to sentence defendants appropriately. Every case is different, so removing a judge’s discretion and forcing him to impose an inappropriate sentence does nothing to promote justice…this is not a liberal bill, it’s a bill about justice.”
Attorney Bellotti is joined by Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree and former Massachusetts Department of Corrections Commissioner Kathleen Dennehy in his sentiments, both of whom were vocal critics of the Three Strikes provision, arguing it would exacerbate prison overcrowding, allow for inappropriate and disproportionate punishments, and cost Massachusetts millions of dollars. Harvard Law professor and retired U.S. District Court judge, Nancy Gertner, also disagreed with the law. Gertner told WBUR, Boston’s NPR newstation, earlier this year, that the “Three Strikes” legislation was far harsher on criminals than needed to accomplish its goals. In particular, she noted that over incarceration would result, when overall, crime rates are declining in the state. Further, Gertner pointed out that discretion would be taken out of a judge’s hands and put into the prosecution, who chooses the category of crime to charge, including whether, ultimately, it would fall under the three strikes categorization.
Finally, a Boston University study has revealed that two-thirds of states passing Three Strikes laws have since revised them, reducing maximum sentences and granting judges more discretion in sentencing repeat offenders.
The Three Strikes law is not opposed by all, though, as family victim groups, the Massachusetts Police Association, and many state prosecutors, notably Middlesex County DA Gerry Leone, support the law. Their rationale, mainly, is that habitual, violent offenders need to be punished accordingly and their past behavior shows a likelihood of committing future crime.