Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Getting Beyond Easy-Answer Justice in Massachusetts

Former federal judge Nancy Gertner makes a spot-on argument against Massachusetts' "Melissa's Bill," a proposed three-strikes bill to amend the state's habitual offender law, currently under consideration.  Here's how the bill came about, and how Gertner debunks the soundbites that led to its creation:
[T]he murder of Melissa Gosule - horrible as it was - does not justify the “three strikes and you’re out’’ bill that state lawmakers are considering. “Melissa’s bill,’’ as it is called, is supposedly aimed at keeping the most dangerous repeat offenders behind bars, without the possibility of parole. Its backers insist the bill is designed only for the worst of the worst, the habitually violent offenders presumably like Michael Gentile, the man convicted of Melissa’s murder.
What few are saying, however, is that Gentile’s record did not fit the “worst of the worst’’ profile. He had a non-violent adult record - petty larcenies, breaking and entering, marijuana possession, disorderly conduct, trespassing, and shoplifting - and the dispositions imposed by the various courts reflected the petty nature of the crimes. Should the judge who had Gentile before him on the second disorderly conduct charge, or the second trespassing charge, have thrown the book at him? Should the judge who sentenced Gentile for breaking and entering and larceny have given him more than two years in prison, when that was his first incarceration? In fact, nothing about his criminal record would have predicted that he was capable of murder. 
Three strikes laws are a bit like a house of cards. It looks good -- maybe even stable and sensible -- until you try to move the pieces around. What about offenders like Gentile, who commit truly unforeseeable crimes? What about other unexpected cases, where special exceptions should apply? Gertner correctly explains that there are no "easy answers" -- which is what a mandatory minimum always masquerades as -- to our public safety concerns:
We have to ask the hard questions: What combination of punishment along with drug treatment, reentry programs, and intensive supervision will deter someone like Gentile? The answer is not jail, jail, and more jail - not if we want to have the resources for the policies that we know are effective.
We have to reserve prisons and scarce correctional resources for the most violent. We need to be not just tough on crime, but smart about it. Putting a name on a bill - even a name that reminds us of a thoroughly despicable crime - is no substitute for real reform.