holy-cow, cracker-jack editorial on reforming Massachusetts' mandatory minimum sentencing laws -- and avoiding a new, budget-breaking disaster of an amped-up three-strikes law. Here it is in full:
Patrick offers a fairer, smarter approach to 'three strikes' law
Boston Globe, Jan. 29, 2012
Governor Patrick made clear in his State of the Commonwealth address last week that he won't abide a one-dimensional crime bill that continues to warehouse lesser offenders for costly and fruitless prison stays. Now it's up to the Legislature to deliver a crime bill that makes sense both economically and in terms of public safety.
The latest incarnation of the crime bill - now in a House-Senate conference committee - was born of righteous anger over the 2010 murder of Woburn police officer John Maguire by a parolee. But what emerged was a flawed "three-strikes'' approach. The underlying rationale is sound - to eliminate parole eligibility for anyone convicted three times of violent felonies. But the legislation covers almost 60 third-strike felonies, including some that wouldn't necessarily involve violence, such as breaking and entering a building at night.
The bill needs to focus exclusively on repeat offenders who commit overt acts of violence. That's not the case now. In the House version of the bill, for example, someone convicted and imprisoned twice for distributing drugs could receive a life sentence after a third-strike conviction for unarmed robbery.
The Senate passed its version of the crime bill unanimously, and the House passed its by an overwhelming 142-12 margin. Lawmakers were in a congratulatory mood. So Patrick's insistence that they deliver a better bill raised some hackles. But the governor needed to stand up and stress the importance of being both tough and smart on crime.
In his speech, Patrick pointed to a 30-percent increase in state spending on prisons over the last decade, which he attributed in large part to longer sentences for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders. He's right to stress the importance of eliminating some mandatory minimum drug sentences not only as a means to enhance treatment and reintegration into society, but as a way to free up prison space for violent criminals.
The Senate version of the bill did make a sincere effort to balance its three-strikes provision with another to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes. But the House chose to deal only with the three-strikes provision. That leaves little room to maneuver. Conference committee reports are not subject to amendments on the floor, thereby limiting opportunity for House members to improve their bill.
At this stage, the best strategy is to suspend the conference committee until House members can debate a balanced sentencing bill - one that cracks down on violent offenders, shortens sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and lightens up on taxpayers who bear the cost of incarceration.