'Three Strikes' Bill Strikes Nerve Among Many In Mass.

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The interior of the Middlesex Jail in Cambridge (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The interior of the Middlesex Jail in Cambridge (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The so called “three strikes” legislation is striking a nerve among various community leaders and lawmakers in Massachusetts. A varied group of people gathered at the State House Tuesday to pore over the competing House and Senate versions of the bill that would mandate life in prison sentences for repeat criminal offenders. Among the group: a Harvard professor, a former corrections official and a lawmaker who supports the measure.

First, Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree said the bills lawmakers approved are “vicious.” Ogletree said the legislation will result in important programs being cut to fund increased incarceration. Programs, he said, that would otherwise provide food or jobs.

Former Massachusetts Corrections Commissioner Kathleen Dennehy said the bill before the Legislature are too broad and would increase costs and crowding at jails and prisons.

“All of that is going to be impacted by this nonsensical, mean-spirited bill and we have to stop it,” Ogletree said. “People in California did the same thing and now the Supreme Court is telling them, ‘Either you let those people go or we will.’ That’s what happens when you have a short-sighted proposal.”

The U.S. Supreme Court last year ordered California to reduce its inmate population because of unconstitutional overcrowding and inadequate mental health and medical care for inmates.

A 2010 report from the California State Auditor found that the bill cost the state $19.2 billion and more than half of those serving life sentences under “three strikes” were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.

Former Massachusetts Corrections Commissioner Kathleen Dennehy said the bills before this state’s Legislature are too broad and would increase costs and crowding at jails and prisons which are already at 143 percent capacity.

“We’re at a critical juncture here,” Dennehy said. “We need smarter choices for safe communities. We need to consider all the facts before we advance yet another tough-on-crime piece of legislation. We need a rigorous assessment of the costs and impacts associated with this.”

Critics say the legislation would add about $125 million a year to Massachusetts’ $1 billion a year corrections budget. But supporters say there would be only minimal cost increases, which they say would be outweighed by improved public safety.

At a separate appearance Tuesday, Gov. Deval Patrick reiterated the point he made in his State of the Commonwealth address about what he supports: “A balanced bill that has some reforms on the habitual offender side to be as tough as we should be on the worst of the worst,” Patrick said. “And also some changes on the sentencing side so we have a smarter way of dealing with nonviolent drug offenders.”

But the Rev. Eugene Rivers is concerned, calling for a meeting with the governor and the state’s religious leaders about the legislation. Rivers said there are racial undertones to the proposals because more than 50 percent of Massachusetts inmates are black and Latino.

“We call on the black religious leadership of this state to have the boldness and the courage to challenge Caesar when he’s black,” Rivers said.

Rivers is also calling on state lawmakers to revisit the legislation.

Both the House and Senate versions of “three strikes” would dramatically increase the types of crimes for which an offender could be sentenced to life in prison without parole. Right now murder is the only crime that carries that sentence. The new legislation would outline some two dozen felonies for which a third-time offender would automatically be sent to prison for life.

Republican State Rep. Dan Winslow voted for the House bill, but said there should be more dialogue. And Winslow maintains that lawmakers must act.

“We’ve had people serving multiple life sentences in Massachusetts being discharged to the street and who have then committed violent crime. That’s wrong,” Winslow said.

Negotiations on the House and Senate bills are on hold while the House considers additional provisions.

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