STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MARCH 14, 2012…... Despite warnings from Republican lawmakers that foot-dragging threatened to derail talks, the House’s lead negotiator on a sweeping, high-stakes crime and sentencing package guaranteed Wednesday that a deal would get done.
“That’s a representation you can take to the bank,” said Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty (D-Chelsea), co-chair of a six-member committee of legislators charged with coming to consensus on competing versions of crime bills that affecting sentencing laws. The committee met in the capitol for the first time in weeks, breaking after 10 minutes without an indication of when they might reconvene.
O’Flaherty’s comments came as House negotiators offered their latest salvo in the talks: a proposal that would shrink to 100 feet the zone around schools in which drug crimes carry a mandatory minimum sentence. In addition, the school zone wouldn’t be in effect from midnight to 5 a.m.
The zone currently stands at 1,000 feet, a radius that urban lawmakers say has led to thousands of mandatory jail terms and disproportionately nabs residents in urban areas, where most homes fall within school zones. A Senate version of the proposal passed in November would shrink the school zone to 500 feet, and Gov. Deval Patrick has advocated a zone of 100 feet.
That O’Flaherty went further than either the Senate or Patrick opened a new front in negotiations, and Senate negotiators – led by Sen. Cynthia Creem (D-Newton) – said they needed more time to review the proposal.
The new proposal from House conferees would embrace a Senate proposal to ease mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders, and it would adopt a new set of practices for the state Parole Board. The proposal would eliminate a provision backed by the Senate to expand the wiretapping power of state police. The draft would also scrap mandatory supervision for convicts released from prison, as well as a proposal to permit judges to include pets in restraining orders. It would also narrow the list of crimes that would result in an automatic maximum sentence for repeat offenders.
Although O’Flaherty presented the House’s latest draft as a “good-faith” effort to advance talks with the goal of reaching consensus before lawmakers end formal business on July 31, the House’s lead Republican negotiator described foot-dragging by the committee and worried that the slow pace of talks would jeopardize their efforts.
“I have a fear that we’re running out of time here,” said Rep. Bradford Hill (R-Ipswich). “We have to get this done. I feel like we’re a truck stuck in mud.”
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr – the Senate’s lead Republican negotiator – called for conferees to meet again next week.
“I do not feel that the urgency of the situation has diminished or changed in any way,” he said. “But I would say that because we’re dealing with matters of significance … we do need to be careful in our consideration.”
O’Flaherty replied that House and Senate staff would continue discussions privately and that another meeting would be scheduled “as soon as possible.”
“I’m very open-minded on all of this. I’m just hoping that this document will serve to move this discussion forward,” he said of the House’s latest version. “Nothing is etched in stone within the four corners of this document. I hope that we can continue the policy of having staffs work and continue to work on some language and some suggestions.”
The full House has not debated many of the proposals the Senate included in its bill last fall.
Reaching a deal this year is critical for legislative leaders and Gov. Deval Patrick, who have staked significant political capital on the issue, following a series of violent crimes that led to calls for a crackdown on repeat, violent offenders. Patrick used his annual State of the Commonwealth address in January to lay out the terms under which he would embrace a crackdown, demanding that it be accompanied by reductions to mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenses.
Although the Legislature’s conference committee meetings are typically held in secret, Creem and O’Flaherty have opted to hold public sessions and offer insight into their talks.
Wednesday’s meeting, in a cramped Senate office, drew interest from an array of stakeholders, including Les Gosule, whose daughter Melissa was murdered in 1999 by a habitual felon. Her death reignited the debate over eliminating parole for third-time felons, but until this year, proponents had found little support outside of the tiny Republican caucus. That dynamic changed in December 2010, when a Woburn police officer, John Maguire, was gunned down by a career criminal, Domenic Cinelli, during an attempted robbery.
Gosule also said he was worried that long talks could hinder efforts to crack down on habitual offenders.
“The budget’s going to be coming out in April and the state budget’s going to trump a lot of things,” he told the News Service. Asked about O’Flaherty’s guarantee, Gosule said, “I want to believe that his words are true. Until proven otherwise, I’m going to believe his words are true.”
Woburn Police Chief Robert Ferullo was also on hand to urge the conference committee to produce an agreement. He was joined by Rep. James Dwyer (D-Woburn), officials from the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association and Watertown Police Chief Edward Deveau.
“We need something to be done. We need to get this out of committee. We need to get it on the floor for a vote,” Ferullo said, adding that he would support a compromise proposal with mandatory minimum sentence changes if it also included the crackdown on habitual offenders.
Ferullo noted that nine months after the Woburn officer was killed, another officer, Robert DeNapoli, was shot multiple times during an attempted jewelry store robbery.
“We’re losing sight of the big picture. Jack Maguire’s dead. Bobby DeNapoli, five months later was shot five times and was laying on the ground of the four corners midday Tuesday. I’m a fairly new police chief,” he said.
Critics of the so-called three-strikes proposal, including Leslie Walker of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, Mary Ann Walsh of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and Ann Lambert of the ACLU, were also on hand.
“I think the progress that they’re making is important, especially if the number of felonies has been significantly reduced. Not having seen it, I can’t really comment on the draft,” Walker said. “There are so many other stakeholders that have come forward, including many communities of color. There have been forums all over the state. Lowell, Lynn planned forums in the Bristol County Area, Watertown, Springfield, Worcester. The religious community is very much against a wide net. There are a lot of people who have been spending a lot of time in this building and I’m glad they’re making a difference.”
Maryann Calia, an official with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, was also on hand.
Critics of the proposal have argued that it would worsen overcrowding in Massachusetts prisons, do little to deter crime, disproportionately target minority communities and cost millions of dollars to implement.
At the outset of the meeting, Creem, the Senate chair, distributed a Bloomberg article about Republican policymakers in other states who have embraced reduced mandatory minimum sentences.
“I thought it would be something that would allow us to have some discussions at a later time,” she said.
Creem said she and her Senate colleagues are reviewing the House’s latest proposal. Other conferees include Sen. Steven Baddour (D-Methuen) and Rep. David Linsky (D-Natick), both of who remained silent during the meeting.
“This bill, as you might say, has evolved into issues for not just one group but for more than one group,” Creem said. “The document I have is far different than the two documents that we had before that were so far apart. I guess I could say that we’ll do it but we want to make it right. I appreciate how hard it is for everybody … to not get it done right away. We’ve done things even later. I think it will get done.”