Local officials split on three strikes bill

August 3, 2012
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Local elected officials are split on “Melissa’s Bill,” a so-called “three strikes” crime reform bill that imposes mandatory sentences on repeat violent offenders.

The bill is named after Melissa Gosule, a 27-year-old Jamaica Plain resident who was raped and murdered by a paroled violent criminal in 1999. Gosule had submitted travel pieces to the Gazette, but they were never published.

Local state Reps. Liz Malia and Jeffrey Sánchez voted in favor of the bill, while local state Rep. Russell Holmes and local state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz voted against it.

At the Gazette deadline, Gov. Deval Patrick issued a statement that said he would sign the bill, but did not say when he would. That came after the state Legislature recently rejected an amendment by the governor that would have given judges more discretion in sentencing.

Sánchez said he was initially against the bill, but his opinion was swayed in part by the recent violence in the Hyde/Jackson Square area. As the Gazette previously reported, six men have been shot in that area between May 26 and July 2.

“I feel we are investing a lot of money in programming to help people out, but I’m at the end of my rope trying to figure out what to do,” said Sánchez.

Sánchez is a member of the state Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, which crafted a letter in opposition to the bill. Sánchez was the only member who did not sign the letter.

“I’m a member of the Black and Latino Caucus and other caucuses, but at the end of the day I vote my conscience,” said Sánchez.

The representative said the bill targets the most violent criminals in the community who have no regard for life.

“It’s too much. One [shooting] is too much. It has to stop,” he said.

Holmes’s opposition to the bill came down to mandatory sentencing, which he said does not work. The bill eliminates parole for people convicted of certain violent crimes three times.

“I believe in judicial discretion,” he said.

The representative pointed to South Carolina, where a “thoughtful process” occurred when it undertook crime reform. South Carolina moved away from mandatory sentencing and was able to reduce the prison population by 10 percent through such measures as job programs, said Holmes.

He said that our state needs to do more research and not have a rushed process.

“We need to have an informative decision, not one based on emotion,” said Holmes.

Malia voted for the bill despite being against the mandatory sentencing section.
“Basically, the concept of the mandatory sentencing is not helpful in anyway as I see,” she said.

She said the debate on the mandatory sentencing has been “polarized,” “emotional” and “highly-charged.” Malia also said it was “totally understandable” for people effected by multiple violent offenders to be in favor of mandatory sentencing, but she doesn’t think it’s good policy.

But Malia said two pieces she couldn’t ignore were the “Good Samaritan” provision, which would allow a person to call in an overdose without the threat of prosecution, and the significant reduction of the drug school zone. If a person is caught with drugs within that zone, the punishment is increased significantly. But because there are so many schools in urban areas, virtually anywhere in a city is in a “school zone.”

Chang-Díaz, who the Gazette could not reach for comment, voted against the bill despite being in favor of it in an earlier version. She had had to defend voting for that earlier version during a JP community meeting in January, where mandatory sentencing was widely criticized.

Chang-Díaz signed onto the aforementioned letter from the state Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, which she is a part of, that advocated for a bill that eliminates mandatory sentencing “in order to promote more effective and equitable sentencing.”