State House News Service

State House Roundup: Crime And Punishment

BOSTON — A noisy, animated horde of teens arrived at the capitol on Thursday afternoon, demanding their voices be heard on funding for youth jobs. It was an example of democracy and civic engagement in its purest form, and, for a brief period, the teens filled the quieted hallways of the State House.

Jobs would lower the high teen unemployment rate, give young people a footing in the work world, and help them steer clear of criminal activity. But what happens when the masses speak up and no one is around to listen?

As is the case every year, school vacation week dragged action under the golden dome to a virtual standstill. For those lawmakers and staff who were around, many had the same question on their minds. What’s next?

Major legislative priorities remain bottled up in stalled negotiations between the House and Senate or awaiting final decisions to be made by House Speaker Robert DeLeo on the minimum wage, unemployment insurance reform, gun laws and job creation legislation, to name a few. As DeLeo deliberates, the House waits.

Gov. Deval Patrick filled some of the void with a speech on criminal justice reform.

After years of pushing changes – some accepted by the Legislature and others not – to the state’s sentencing laws and treatment of non-violent offenders, the governor heralded one final push by his administration to use its regulatory authority and power of persuasion to re-orient the criminal justice system in a way he says will facilitate successful re-entry to society and the treatment, rather than incarceration, of those battling substance abuse.

“Treating those with substance abuse as prisoners is wrong. We must make the beds available for these individuals to receive proper treatment in proper settings,” Patrick said.

Patrick said the Department of Corrections is implementing a new classification system to make it easier for inmates to earn “good time” credits, or shed negative points for misbehavior, to move from medium to minimum security facilities and access programs that will decrease their likelihood of landing back in jail later in life.

The governor also highlighted new regulations to ban the use of restraints on pregnant inmates and his recommended budget spending for 64 additional substance abuse treatment beds. Patrick urged the Legislature to go along with his recommendation to use that expansion of treatment beds as a way to stop sending civilly committed individuals to correctional facilities in Bridgewater and Framingham.

How far down the path of sentencing reform lawmakers will be willing to go in an election year is an open question. Legislative leaders last session promised Patrick they would revisit sentencing laws after passing a three strikes law targeting repeat violent felons, but have not worked sentencing changes into their talking points since.

As Patrick sought to steer the public conversation away from the turmoil at the Department of Children and Families and the Health Connector – which both continue to provide fodder for his enemies – the Health Policy Commission threw a fastball between the shoulder blades of the Democratic frontrunner for his job next year.

The HPC board finalized its report on the proposed acquisition by Partners Health Care of South Shore Hospital and Harbor Medical Associates. Though the commission can’t block the deal, the issuance of the report, which warned of increased health spending and premiums and decreased competition, initiated a 30-day holding period and commission chairman Stuart Altman said it’s now up to Attorney General Martha Coakley, or the Justice Department, to decide what happens next.

“Don’t rule out the Justice Department. This is also a federal anti-trust law. So there’s a state anti-trust law, and then there’s a federal anti-trust law,” Altman said.

As Coakley weighs whether to take on the state’s largest private employer – independent candidate for governor Evan Falchuk urged her to do so – her campaign is running headlong into the perils of running for governor from the perch of the attorney general’s office and her inevitable involvement in the types of unsavory cases – i.e. defending the embattled Department of Children and Families – that make her an easy target.

Add to that the emerging presumption that Treasurer Steven Grossman will win the delegate race at the party convention in June, and some are starting to question whether her early polling advantage is overblown.

Still, Coakley remains the frontrunner until she gets knocked off that podium, which explains the Grossman campaign’s eagerness to dump reams of opposition research into the laps of an eager press corps suggesting Coakley’s nuanced positions on crime-and-punishment topics like mandatory minimums and the three-strikes law have become, shall we say, more nuanced since she started campaigning for governor.

The governor’s race isn’t the only statewide contest going on, and this week saw the first glimpses of former Sen. Warren Tolman and former assistant attorney general Maura Healey mixing it up in their primary race for attorney general now that Rep. Hank Naughton has bowed out.

After U.S. Sen. Edward Markey outlined his federal proposal to require new guns to be personalized so they can only be fired by their owners or authorized users with fingerprint trigger locks on all new guns, Healey questioned whether Tolman’s similar proposal to employ the technology by fiat in Massachusetts would be legal.

“I don’t see the authority for that within the office,” Healey said, reacting to Tolman’s pledge from December to use the state’s consumer protection statute to require fingerprint trigger technology on all newly manufactured guns sold in Massachusetts.

On this point, the two candidates disagree: “Is this aggressive? Yes. Can it be done? Absolutely,” Tolman said.

The House and Senate did manage to put the finishing touches on one piece of legislation – an update to the state’s “Good Samaritan” law protecting off-duty firefighters, police and EMS technicians from legal liability if they intervene in an emergency.

The bill, which is now on the governor’s desk, was the result of efforts by former Rep. Kathi-Anne Reinstein and Sen. James Timilty and got a jumpstart from the experience of the Boston Marathon bombing and the critical role off-duty emergency personnel played in saving victims.

But if ever there was an analogy for the mood of the Legislature this session, the tale of the “Good Samaritan” fit the bill. Because even after the bill passed both branches without opposition, Timilty and Reinstein – and by extension the House and Senate – couldn’t agree on whose piece of legislation, identical in substance, actually landed on the governor’s desk.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Making sure the punishment fits the crime.

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