STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MARCH 15, 2012…..Describing a "war" on Beacon Hill over mandatory minimum sentence policies, a freshman lawmaker contended Thursday that most of his colleagues voted to crack down on habitual felons last year without understanding the consequences.
"We're going to war in here. We're going to battle about this bill," said Rep. Carlos Henriquez (D-Dorchester), adding, "We have found out that most of our colleagues who voted for this bill originally did not do so with the full knowledge of what this bill will do to our communities."
Henriquez spoke at the foot of the State House at a rally against legislative efforts to eliminate parole and impose maximum sentences for criminals convicted of their third felony. The "three-strikes" proposal has been championed for decades by Republican lawmakers and governors, but only after the shooting death of a Woburn police officer in 2010 did Democratic leaders take up the cause.
Opponents have argued that the proposal would worsen prison overcrowding, that it was too broadly crafted to deprive parole for people who commit nonviolent crimes, and that it would stack millions of dollars in new costs onto a cash-strapped prison system. Others, including those at the rally, contended that the bill would disproportionately target minority residents.
Rally organizers, under the banner "Smart on Crime, Massachusetts" brandished signs reading "Who came up with 3 strikes? Who is affected? People of color" and others calling the proposal "the new Jim Crow." Supporters said more than 65 organizations attended the rally.
Rep. Byron Rushing (D-Boston), a member of House Speaker Robert DeLeo's leadership team who voted against the crime bill, attended the rally as well. He declined to speak with a reporter as he pressed into the crowd, which numbered in the hundreds.
Over the objection of the members of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, the House voted hurriedly in November on a bill to achieve that policy, beating the clock before a seven-week recess. The House vote came six days after the Senate unanimously passed a more sweeping package, a move that some House members said put a political squeeze on them to quickly follow suit even though formal sessions are not scheduled to end until July 2012. During its consideration of the bill, House leaders combined a series of amendments into a single "consolidated amendment" - a process that is typically used only during consideration of the state budget - to speed the bill's passage.
Supporters of the bill argued at the time that the proposal was necessary to shore up public safety by keeping the state's most dangerous criminals behind bars, while implementing reforms the state parole system that some critics said had failed by allowing violent offenders out of jail only to have them commit new crimes.
"It captures those who, quite frankly, have no place in society," Linsky said during debate on the bill on Nov. 16, 2011. Rep. Paul Adams (R-Andover) said that the bill would capture the "most heinous criminals," who he said should not be parole-eligible.
Since then, the competing bills have been locked in a six-member committee charged with reaching consensus on the proposals. House Speaker Robert DeLeo has opted against calling for a vote on many of the policies included in the Senate's proposal - including a plan to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes and provisions to expand wiretapping authority for state police and to require mandatory supervision for ex-inmates. Instead, House leaders have sought to use negotiations to preclude wider deliberation among House members, floating pared-down proposals to see whether the Senate will concede.
One of the negotiators, Rep. David Linsky (D-Natick), has estimated that the three-strikes provisions would net only a handful of repeat offenders each year.
Henriquez, joined by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Sen. William Brownsberger (D-Belmont) at Thursday's rally, pointed out that the Housed passed the bill 142-12 in November.
"We want to win this. I don't want to do any vote that's just ceremonial," Henriquez said, arguing that state dollars spent on incarceration would be better spent in education programs. "I really want to win this vote."
Boston City Councilor Felix Arroyo, Democratic activist Grace Ross, and officials from the National Association of Social Workers, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the ACLU, Neighbor to Neighbor and the Massachusetts Council of Churches were on hand.
House negotiators, led by Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty (D-Chelsea), presented a new version of their proposal this week that would sharply reduce the list of crimes that would trigger the loss of parole for third-time felons. Under the revised plan, the list, which had previously approached 50 crimes was pared nearly in half, eliminating arson of a house, carjacking, unlawful possession of an assault weapon, stalking, disseminating or possessing child pornography, and "stealing by confining or putting in fear."
The remaining crimes that could trigger the loss of parole include murder, manslaughter, rape, kidnapping, poisoning, incest, human trafficking, armed robbery and use of a firearm during the commission of a felony.
Opponents of mandatory minimum sentences praised the reduction. Barbara Dougan, head of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said the group was "heartened" by the change. She also praised O'Flaherty's plan for proposing to shrink the size of a school zone - the radius around schools in which drug crimes carry an automatic two-year minimum sentence - to 100 feet from 1,000 feet, matching a proposal made last year by Gov. Deval Patrick. The House proposal would also eliminate the stepped-up school zone punishment between midnight and 5 a.m.
Critics of the current school zone say it disproportionately nabs urban residents, some of whom can be hit with a mandatory minimum for committing crimes in their own homes, which fall within school zones. The Senate's bill would shrink the school zone to 500 feet, and efforts to shrink it further were voted down in that branch.
Rally organizers are also seeking the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and the elimination of mandatory supervision for former prisoners in favor of additional reentry programs in prisons and jails. In a letter to the conference committee sent Thursday afternoon, they criticized the House negotiators for removing a provision that would require convictions counting toward the three-strikes punishment be accompanied by jail terms of at least three years.
"Because crimes punished by lesser sentences tend to be less serious, this loophole would expand enormously the number of people with minor criminal records who would be subject to indictment as habitual offenders," they wrote. "We urge the Conference Committee to retain the 3-year requirement."