Crime bill conferees closer on school drug zones, list of three-strike crimes

Matt Murphy, State House News Service
May. 7, 2012

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 7, 2012…. House and Senate lawmakers negotiating a crime and sentencing bill are moving closer to an agreement over the list of crimes that would trigger a “three-strikes” elimination of parole and over a reduction to the size of school zones that carry increased penalties for drug crimes.

Though Senate negotiators told their House counterparts on Monday that they needed more time to review a counteroffer from the House presented roughly three weeks ago, both sides expressed confidence that progress was being made and a bill would be finalized before July.

Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty, the lead House negotiator, on Monday told reporters that the latest offer from the House “moved from its original position” to adopt Senate-backed reductions in mandatory minimum sentences, a shrinking of school drug zones, Parole Board reforms and a list of trigger crimes for habitual offenders.

He said the House had no problem giving the Senate additional time to review its latest offer, calling the subject matter a “complex” topic with implications for citizens’ “liberty.” The conference committee, which has elected to open its meetings to the public, has been meeting off-and-on for roughly five months.

“While we are going to get this done before the end of the session, because it is complex material we’re not necessarily just going to rush through things. We do know that we have a timeline. We’re going to meet that timeline,” O’Flaherty said during a meeting of the six-member conference committee.

After the meeting, O’Flaherty said the latest offer from the House accepted roughly 30 crimes that would trigger a maximum sentence without parole for three-time repeat felons, a list whittled down from the initial 60-plus crimes included in the Senate bill.

O’Flaherty also said that the House was willing to go along with a reduction in the size of school zones that carry harsher penalties for drug crimes. The Senate initially shrunk school zones from 1,000 feet to 500 feet, while the House left the law untouched.

The House has since proposed reducing the zones to 100 feet, while the Senate conferees have suggested a 300-foot school zone. O’Flaherty said he believed a compromise could be reached within that range.

Sen. Cynthia Creem, the lead Senate conferee, said she and the other two conference committee members from the Senate needed more time to review the House proposal.

“We are not prepared to close the discussion and we wanted some more time to put the meat on the bones and come back with something. We are getting closer. We are certainly talking about a balanced bill, which was something that we wanted, the governor wanted, and I think that’s what’s important. I think we just want to make sure we have the right balance,” Creem said.

Gov. Deval Patrick has called for a bill that not only cracks down on repeat offenders but softens penalties for nonviolent drug offenders. Both Patrick and Senate leaders have endorsed similar policies to free up jail space and ensure that lower-level offenders get access to programs and treatment rather than let out on the street without supports.

In reference to the House offer, Sen. Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, said he was “a little disappointed in its scope” but applauded the House conferees for a being open-minded.

The two branches have disagreed over whether to include reforms to wiretapping laws, restraining orders and other topics included in the initial Senate bill, but dropped by the House last November when it chose to focus exclusively on habitual offenders.

Tarr said the Senate’s next counter-offer will not be a reiteration of the Senate’s original positions, but rather will “move this forward.”

Rep. David Linsky (D-Natick) said he thought the committee should address parole eligibility for felons serving mandatory minimum sentences in state prison for drug trafficking crimes. Though he said he’d be open to discussing whether felons in state prison should be parole eligible after serving half or two-thirds of their sentence, Linsky called it “a smarter approach” than increasing the drug weights that carry mandatory minimums.

There also appeared to be broad agreement among the six conferees that the final bill specify that the first trigger under a new habitual offender law be a minimum sentence of three years in state prison, as opposed to jail, to target the most dangerous criminals.

“We think the most violent recidivist felons usually involve state prison time as opposed to county House of Correction time,” O’Flaherty said.

Linsky also said he would like the final bill to correct the “inadvertent” elimination from state law of a crime for trafficking in crystal methamphetamines two years ago when the Legislature updated the state’s drug trafficking statutes.

Though O’Flaherty noted that the Judiciary Committee gave a favorable recommendation to a standalone bill to fix that oversight, Tarr suggested it be included in the conference crime bill nevertheless.

Though the Senate did not give a timeline for when it might deliver a counter-offer to the House, conferees agreed that their staffs would continue to talk, and O’Flaherty suggested increasing the frequency of the committee’s meetings once the House received the latest Senate proposal.