A panel discussion about controversial prison sentencing reforms—including the “three strikes” laws—turned into a political strategy rally by several prominent Boston elected officials on Jan. 27 at First Church in Jamaica Plain Unitarian Universalist.
Dramatic moments included a convicted felon tearfully describing the impacts of a throw-away-the-key approach to sentencing, and local state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz defending her vote in favor of the Senate’s version of the controversial proposal.
More than 75 people attended the Jamaica Plain Forum discussion, co-sponsored by JP’s Union of Minority Neighborhoods, which featured only critics of the sentencing reforms. They all said that some reforms are needed, but that the current proposals could imprison nonviolent offenders—especially black and Latino people—and cost the state millions.
Local state Rep. Russell Holmes echoed the common theme: a strategy to “stop this bill” or “improve this bill” before it becomes law.
The state legislature recently passed bills that would expand the three-strikes laws, which require maximum sentences for convicts who commit repeated violent felonies. The Senate version of the bill also included a variety of other reforms, such as reducing drug crime sentences and increasing work-release opportunities.
Both bills are now in a State House committee that will produce a single, final bill for a vote. Political input will determine what is in that bill.
Sentencing reforms were launched by Gov. Deval Patrick, largely in response to the 2010 killing of a Woburn police officer by a paroled convict. The 1999 rape and murder of a woman on Cape Cod by a parolee has also influenced the bills. Both criminals had committed dozens of prior felonies.
But critics—including state Sen. Will Brownsberger of suburban Belmont, who spoke at the JP Forum—say the proposals would sweep up many nonviolent offenders. State Reps. Liz Malia and Byron Rushing urged a bigger focus on treatment and post-release programs.
“There’s no need for it,” said panelist Nancy Gertner, a former federal judge and current Harvard Law School professor, about pumping up the three strikes laws, noting that crime rates are dropping. “Every dollar we spend on razor wire is a dollar taken away from treatment.”
Sonja Cherry of the Boston Workers Alliance broke into tears as she described the difficulty of re-entering society as a convicted felon. Her children were in foster care, she lacked job skills, and employers were suspicious, she said.
“I wanted to put a face on three strikes,” said Cherry, who later told the Gazette she did time for unarmed bank robbery. “I’m friendly. I’m kind. But on paper, I’m a convict.”
“It’s not [just] the law itself. It’s the application of the law,” said Jamarhl Crawford, publisher of the Blackstonian newspaper and founder of Roxbury’s Occupy the Hood movement. “My people are going to suffer disproportionately.”
But Crawford supported some of the reforms that appeared in the Senate bill, such as reducing “school zones” that automatically boost drug crime sentences. He noted that virtually all of Egleston Square is a school zone.
Moderator Ben Thompson, executive director of the JP-based Criminal Justice Policy Coalition, was among those emphasizing that the controversial three strikes law is just one part of the proposal and that there are other reforms on the table.
Chang-Díaz said those reforms are why she supported the Senate bill in “the hardest vote I’ve taken in my three years in the Senate.” She said that she tried to “stand in front of this runaway train” and make the bill “less bad.”
“I know there are things in that bill that are going to harm the community I represent,” Chang-Díaz said, but added that it would also immediately help many nonviolent offenders avoid or get released from needlessly lengthy sentences. She said she voted out of political tactics and “conscience” after negotiating several reforms into the bill.
Some attendees criticized her position, with Crawford asking why she didn’t vote no and then craft a different bill.
“To use an ill-advised metaphor, it’s not black-and-white,” Chang-Díaz said, explaining that she would lose political credibility by getting things she wanted into the bill and then voting against it. She said she still “agonizes” over her vote.
The political backdrop for the controversy is that the killings that spurred the reforms happened to in the suburbs with white victims and criminals, but the law could affect urban black and Latino people more strongly.
“When a murder happens in the 2nd Suffolk District [including JP], we don’t get the same speed and intensity of response,” Chang-Díaz noted. “It is grossly, grossly unjust.”
It was not mentioned at the forum, but a murder very similar to the Woburn killing happened at a convenience store just across the street in 2009. An older, paroled convict killed a clerk, who was from Nepal, in a virtual repeat of an earlier crime. That murder raised some minor local debate about the parole system, but did not trigger statewide controversy or legislation.