Sentencing bill negotiators still 'close,' urged to keep flexible schedules

Matt Murphy, State House News Service
Jul. 16, 2012

The lead House negotiator on an anti-crime and sentencing reform bill said on Monday that changes to mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenders remain one of the last unresolved issues between the branches.

Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat and co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said after a brief conference committee meeting Monday that the House and Senate were close to reaching a final agreement on the bill that would eliminate parole for certain three-time felons.

The six-member conference committee has been negotiating since last November when both the House and Senate approved bills that would eliminate parole for certain habitual offenders, but the Senate also included a number of reforms to sentencing and evidence collection laws that have been the subject of prolonged negotiation.

“We’re close to resolution. I know that’s been a recurring statement that I have made, but that’s the fairest statement I can make at this point,” O’Flaherty told reporters after the conference committee met for four minutes Monday afternoon.

O’Flaherty told the conferees that the House was reviewing the Senate’s latest counter-offer, and planned to respond in writing later in the evening or on Tuesday. The conferees agreed to keep their schedules flexible this week in anticipation of another meeting to either discuss remaining unresolved issues, or finalize an agreement.

“The one that is the subject of some discussion right now involves the minimum mandatory sentencing of drug offenders. That is what we are discussing in terms of some language,” O’Flaherty said.

Gov. Deval Patrick has said he wants to sign a "balanced bill," and is looking for sentencing reforms that could ease prison overcrowding to be accompanied by a crackdown on habitual offenders.
Critics of the habitual offender initiative say its sweep is too broad and its passage would worsen prison overcrowding and leave taxpayers with $75 million to $125 million in new costs to keep more individuals imprisoned. They predict an increase in prisoners of 1,500 to 2,500, an estimate bill supporters say is far too high.

Patrick, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray were expected to discuss the crime bill during a meeting between the three leaders on Monday afternoon. After the sit-down meeting, DeLeo said the conference committee was “very close” to reaching a deal that would achieve the balance sought by Patrick.

“I think we have to address issues like that of the habitual offenders. On the other hand I think there has to be some balance on the other side in terms of being smarter on crime than we are right now. So I think what you'll see will be a balance,” DeLeo said.

Patrick had initially filed a bill that would have made certain “non-violent” drug offenders eligible for parole after two-thirds of their minimum sentence in state prison. When the Senate tackled sentencing reforms, members voted instead to reduce mandatory minimums for certain drug trafficking and possession offenses, and to increase the weights of drugs associated with those crimes. The Senate has yet to move off that approach, according to officials.

“I think the number of issues that remain in dispute is very small,” Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said during the meeting, expressing his hope to reconvene sooner rather than later this week to attempt to resolve any final issues.

Both the House and Senate would have to pass a final conference report, which is unamendable, by Saturday in order to guarantee that there would be time during formal sessions, which end on July 31, to address any amendments or vetoes returned by the governor.

Last week, on the 13th anniversary of his daughter’s murder, Les Gosule, whose daughter Melissa was raped and murdered in 1999 by a habitual felon, held a press conference to plead with House and Senate lawmakers to pass a parole reform bill that could keep people like his daughter's murderer off the streets.

Rep. James Dwyer, of Woburn, where a police officer was shot a killed two years ago by a repeat felon during a jewelry heist, said at the rally he would be “frustrated” if the session ended without resolution.

When asked, O’Flaherty rejected the notion that the legislative calendar might be used as a tool to kill the bill.

“That is entirely an incorrect assumption. There is no effort being made to allow time to run out or to not allow a bill its full airing. This subject matter is difficult, it’s complex, and quite frankly, it should take this amount of time to resolve issues that need deliberation and need thoughtfulness as opposed to rash action,” O’Flaherty said.

The conference committee, according to those involved in the negotiations, has largely reached agreement already on a reduction in the size of school zones that carry harsher penalties for drug offenses to 300 feet, new DNA sampling procedures and a list of crimes that would trigger a loss of parole under the habitual offender provisions.