JP officials question crime reforms

January 20, 2012
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Prison sentence reforms—including a beefing-up of the so-called three strikes laws—recently passed by the state legislature are sparking controversy across the city and in Jamaica Plain.

“Many people in the city believe that it will be extremely expensive and it will sweep up many minor offenders because it is too broadly written,” said local activist Hope Haff, who is organizing a Jamaica Plain Forum panel discussion on the “three strikes” issue on Jan. 27. [See JP Agenda listing.]

All of JP’s state legislators are warning citizens about the proposals, saying they could increase prison sentences for nonviolent offenders and cost the state millions. But the proposals are more complex than has been generally reported, and the elected officials’ votes reflect that.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz was part of a unanimous Senate vote on its version (S2080), which included a wide variety of reforms. State Reps. Russell Holmes, Liz Malia and Jeffrey Sánchez were in a small minority voting against the House version (H3818), which exclusively pumps up the “three strikes” laws.

The Senate and House proposals recently passed and are now in a conference committee that will produce a final bill for the entire legislature to vote on. Public comment can influence what that final bill looks like.

JP’s legislators all agreed that the proposals have moved fast and started out more political than practical. The reforms gained steam from the 2010 killing of a Woburn police officer by a paroled criminal. The case led Gov. Deval Patrick to demand the resignation of most of the state parole board, among other moves.

The Senate and House bills both beef up the three strikes laws, which require longer sentences for people convicted of repeated violent felonies. The reforms require maximum sentences and make prisoners wait longer for parole eligibility.

“It’s overkill. I don’t say that lightly and I don’t say that disrespectfully,” said Malia, adding that the House bill is “casting such a broad net” that possession of a firecracker or breaking into a house could result in a “violent” felony three-strikes sentence. She said mental health treatment has to be a piece of criminal justice reform.

Holmes said that repeat offenders need a crackdown—“But that’s not the challenge.” The issue is finding “holistic” and “evidence-based” anticrime strategies, he said.

“I’m skeptical about three strikes laws in general, because they don’t necessarily reduce crime,” Sanchez said, noting that several states are cutting back on such policies due to prison overcrowding. He also noted that blacks and Latinos are imprisoned at disproportionate rates and would bear the impact of such changes.

The House bill was brought to a vote rapidly—Holmes said he had only two days to consider it—in apparent catch-up game with the Senate. The Senate took more time, and its version included other reforms.

“It was only with great frustration that I voted for [the Senate bill],” said Chang-Diaz, explaining that she gave a thumbs-up because of some pieces she was able to include.

That includes reducing some mandatory minimum sentences on drug crimes to “let judges actually be judges [rather than] automatons,” she said. Better access to prison work release programs and reduced sentences for good behavior were other elements.

Another big Senate provision praised by all of the local state legislators is a reform of the law that makes drug-dealing in a school zone a more serious offense. The existing zone is within 1,000 feet of any school. The reform reduces that to 500 feet.

“It’s hard to find anywhere in Boston that isn’t in a school zone” due to urban density, said Chang-Díaz. That means a law intended to crack down on dealing to schoolkids may be misused on people with no such intent. And it automatically affects urban residents far more than those in the suburbs.

The local legislators all noted that they represent some high-crime areas and are eager for crime solutions—but only ones that are thoughtfully and practical.

“If those measures were effective, I would be the first to support them,” Chang-Diaz said of three strikes and mandatory minimums.

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