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Mass. House Approves Overhaul To Sentencing Laws

This article is more than 10 years old.

Massachusetts House lawmakers passed a proposal to overhaul sentencing laws in Massachusetts. A key provision of the bill would bar parole for three-time violent offenders. Another would reduce some mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.

WBUR's Bianca Vazquez Toness has been covering the crime bill's debate and joined WBUR Morning Edition host Deborah Becker to discuss the bill.

Deborah Becker: OK, bring us up to speed. What would this bill do exactly and how might it change current laws?

Bianca Vazquez Toness: The main initiative passed by the House includes roughly 40 crimes that legislators consider the most violent felonies — from child rape to home invasion. If someone is sentenced to state prison for three years or more for one of those crimes, it's a strike on the their record. And after three strikes, they're no longer eligible for parole.

Democratic Rep. David Linsky from Natick praised the initiative and said he believes most people in prison are not habitual offenders:

There is a very small number of people, who come before the criminal justice system, repeat violent habitual offenders, for whom no redemption is possible.

I understand that this bill also reduces some penalties. How so?

Well, they reduced mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes and they did something they say will make drug laws more fair.

Currently, if you're charged with drug possession or distribution within 1,000 feet of a school zone, you get a harsher sentence. Lawmakers argued that in urban areas most of the city is a school zone, so the law disproportionately affects people in densely populated areas. So they're proposing to shrink the school zone and eliminate the school zone rule when school is not in session.

Now this vote in the House, 139-14, I mean, despite all the debate about this, it seems as if it was overwhelmingly approved.

As you know Deb, they've been trying to overhaul the sentencing laws for a decade. And many lawmakers [Wednesday] night called this imperfect but the best compromise so far. There were critics. One man pointed out the fact that states that have used three-strikes laws, such as Texas, have abandoned them because of prison overcrowding.

Then there's Ruth Balser, a Democrat from Newton, and she said the proposal fails to address the problems behind criminal behavior:

We continue to not address the issue of the involvement in the criminal justice system of large numbers of mentally ill and addicted individuals.

We did hear from District Attorney [Michael] O'Keefe from the Cape, who called this bill a fraud on the public in a statement [Wednesday], because it did not include provisions that district attorneys were advocating for, such as wire tapping. And then there are the critics saying that it takes away judicial discretion. So now what happens with all of this?

Well, the Senate may take up the measure as early as [Thursday]. It's expected to pass there. And after that it might get some pushback. Gov. Deval Patrick has said he did not want the Legislature to eliminate parole for three-time violent offenders. And outside groups will certainly pressure Patrick to veto this provision.

Listen to Carol Rose, the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. This is her reaction to the House passing the measure last night:

I think it's a concern that politicians are so concerned about looking tough on crime as we approach an election, that they're really willing to sacrifice real justice and real public safety and economic savings.

Meanwhile, all of this has to be wrapped up by the end of the legislative session on July 31 or else it will have to be reintroduced next year.

This program aired on July 19, 2012.


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