Jan. 13, 2012
BOSTON — After sparking renewed debate in 2010, when a Woburn police officer was killed by a career criminal out on parole, a controversial crime bill remains hung up in the Massachusetts Legislature.
The so-called “three-strikes’’ bill would crack down on habitual offenders by denying parole to anyone convicted more than twice of certain felonies. Supporters say it would get violent criminals off the streets. But critics call it “bumper-sticker politics” crafted by lawmakers trying to look tough on crime.
Mary Beth Heffernan, the state secretary of public safety, says the list of felonies that would qualify was carefully considered.
It includes "things like indecent assault on a child under 14, rape of a child by force, aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon," she says. "I would respectfully say that any one of us would want folks like that off of our streets."
Former U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Gertner agrees that those people should be incarcerated. Her issue is with who makes that decision. Gertner says the bill would remove a judge's power to consider how long ago the offenses occurred or any other mitigating factors.
"We could make a distinction — like I saw in my court all the time — between the guy who’s dealing crack and then going home to the car in which he lives, and the guy who’s dealing crack to get a Porsche," she says. "We can make these distinctions. Sadly, the Legislature cannot. And when you begin to legislate broadly like this you’re going to sweep into it people who it makes no sense to incarcerate for this amount of time."
Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, says there’s a better and more cost-effective way.
Instead of locking people up and throwing away the key, she says, the state should intervene earlier. "There’s tons of research, clear as a bell [that] what works is looking at someone after perhaps one strike and saying, 'What is wrong with you? What’s going on with you? What do you need to not commit any more crimes?'"
A recent study by the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission estimates that a three-strikes law here in Massachusetts would cost taxpayers $75–$125 million dollars a year.