Talks indicate crime bill conferees still appear far apart

By 
Kyle Cheney, State House News Service
Apr. 13, 2012

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, APRIL 13, 2012…..House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s point-man in talks with the Senate over omnibus crime and sentencing legislation raised the prospect Friday that the two sides could fail to reach agreement and suggested that they consider passing a narrow bill that could win support.

In a meeting with five other lawmakers negotiating the bill, Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty (D-Chelsea) wondered whether the Senate would be open to jettisoning the bulk of its proposal – including changes to wiretapping, restraining order, drug and sentencing policies – in favor of a plan that would crack down on habitual felons.

“It would be a terrible shame to allow the session to expire without having dealt with habitual recidivist issues,” O’Flaherty said at an afternoon meeting of the conference committee.

O’Flaherty pointed out that issues related to habitual offenders – most notably the shooting death of a Woburn police officer by a career criminal out on parole in 2010 – is “what originally brought us all to the table.” That proposal would require that offenders who commit their third serious felony face the maximum possible sentence without the possibility of parole.

Sen. Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), the lead Senate negotiator, said the Senate has long contended that it would only back a “balanced bill.”

“I don’t think the Senate as a whole is prepared to deal with one piece without the whole,” she said.

Gov. Deval Patrick has also called for a bill that not only cracks down on repeat offenders but softens penalties for nonviolent drug offenders, a proposal he said would 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.

The Senate passed its wide-ranging bill in November shortly before a seven-week recess, and the House quickly followed suit, passing a bill that stripped all of the Senate’s proposals except for the crackdown on habitual offenders.

The negotiating panel, led by O’Flaherty and Creem, was named in December and has met intermittently since. Other members include Rep. David Linsky (D-Natick), Rep. Brad Hill (R-Ipswich), Sen. Jennifer Flanagan (D-Leominster) and Sen. Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester).

Linsky suggested a balanced bill would include the crackdown on habitual offenders, changes to the operation of the Parole Board, changes to parole eligibility for nonviolent offenders and a shrinking of the zone around schools within which drug offenders receive a mandatory minimum sentence of two to three years.

“I’m also convinced we could get agreement on those four areas,” he said. “It’s the other areas that are going to slow down the process.”

Linsky also argued that a reduction in mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders – embraced by the Senate – was “a recipe for recidivism” and a “non-intelligent way to run a system” – because it would do little to prepare offenders to reenter society. He argued that extending earlier parole to those hit with mandatory minimum sentences, ensuring that they receive access to supports and programs, would be “much smarter.”

Creem said she agreed but would need to see whether they could reach consensus within their individual branches.

Tarr suggested that the conferees convene a separate meeting to debate which specific crimes would trigger the so-called three-strikes component of the proposal. The House conferees recently struck dozens of crimes from the list, and Hill, the House Republican representative on the negotiating panel, said he felt strongly that several of them be reinserted.

O’Flaherty agreed with Tarr’s suggestion and appeared to embrace Linsky’s plan to narrow the negotiation’s focus to four areas.

O’Flaherty said he’d like to see a bill approved that could win the governor’s signature or overcome any potential veto.

“I don’t think any of you want to just do something just or the sake of doing something,” he said. “I would like as much as possible for us to agree on a balanced bill. There are some proposals that you’ve presented to us that could be part of a balanced bill. David is heading in the right direction.”

Hill added that he’s struggled convincing members of the House’s 32-member Republican caucus to sign onto a broader bill.

“It has been a very difficult conversation to have with some of my caucus members,” he said.

The conference committee adjourned with plans to reconvene Monday, April 23, the first day the House is set to begin deliberating its budget.