Friday July 20, 2012

After prolonged and vigorous debate, a compromise "three strikes" crime bill that rules out parole for three-time offenders in cases involving murder, child rape, sexual assault and other crimes, has won House and Senate approval and is headed for Gov. Deval Patrick's desk.

The Senate vote on Thursday afternoon was 31 to 7. State Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, voted in favor.

Differences between competing versions of the bill overhauling the state's criminal-sentencing laws had required the longest conference committee negotiations, 11 months, in his tenure on Beacon Hill, said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.

The proposal, which caps a decade of unsuccessful efforts to crack down on repeat offenders who have been convicted of three felonies, also eases certain mandatory minimum sentences in non-violent drug cases.

But opponents of the habitual offender provisions argued that it would hit minority groups hardest and would create more overcrowding in state prisons.

Pignatelli emphasized that hardened criminals would lose parole rights only after serving a series of three-year state prison sentences for three crimes -- a total of nine years in prison.

"We're loading up our prisons with these chronic felony offenders, so it's time to send a strong message on this," said Pignatelli. "No bill is totally perfect, but this offers compassion for victims and their families."

Although it passed in the House with an overwhelming majority of 139-14 late Wednesday, it did not win the unanimous support of the Berkshire delegation.

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, told The Eagle on Thursday that she joined with 10 members of the black and Latino caucus to oppose the legislation. The caucus members contended that the bill affects judges' ability to determine sentences and fails to fully eliminate mandatory minimums which hit minority groups especially hard.

Farley-Bouvier, who is running unopposed in the 3rd Berkshires District (most of Pittsfield) this November, explained that she has a "philosophical issue" with mandatory-minimum sentencing.

"I believe in judicial discretion, there are three branches of government for a good reason," she said. "We need to allow judges to decide what sentences should be."

Farley-Bouvier declared that that mandatory minimums result in a statewide jail population that's 56 percent black and Hispanic, while those groups comprise only 17 percent of the total population.

However, she favored other aspects of the legislation, declaring herself "pretty comfortable" with the "three strikes" provision that limited its scope to the most heinous crimes.

The toughened approach has long been championed by Les Gosule of Quincy, whose daughter Melissa was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 1999 by a paroled repeat violent offender who had 27 prior convictions. The proposal became known as "Melissa's bill."

The legislation also cuts the mandatory minimum for drug offenders on a case-by-case basis while increasing the amount of drugs that would trigger mandatory sentencing.

"I have mixed emotions on that," Pignatelli said, pointing out that it would reduce the current 1,000-foot school zone protection area down to 300 feet. Drug distribution within a school zone generally carries strong penalties.

But he supported reduced sentencing for less severe, non-violent drug cases, emphasizing the need for effective detox programs for substance abusers "instead of just throwing them into jail."

Aides say Gov. Patrick, who has called in the past for a "balanced" sentencing bill, will review the measure before deciding whether to sign it or seek amendments.

Information from The As sociated Press and The Boston Globe was included in this report.

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto




Crime bill in brief

These are some of the key points in the tough-on-crime bill that won final approval by state lawmakers Thursday:

  • Three-time offenders who have served a total of nine years in state prison for a 40-crime list -- including murder, child rape, sexual assault, armed robbery, manslaughter, assault with intent to murder, assault with serious injury, attempted murder, kidnapping, inducing a minor into pornography, and others -- are no longer eligible for parole.
  • Mandatory minimum sentences for many non-violent drug cases are reduced.
  • Drug amounts required to trigger prosecution for distribution and trafficking offenses are increased.
  • Drug violations in school zones are revised down to within 300 feet of a school compared to the current 1,000 feet.
  • Criminal charges could be prevented if a person seeks medical treatment for a drug overdose.

Sources: Associated Press, Boston Globe, Worcester Telegram.