There are members of the Massachusetts Legislature who believe its best work is done with a minimum of public scrutiny, and some of them voted with their feet on Thursday.
A conference committee hearing on increasingly controversial “three strikes and you’re out’’ criminal sentencing legislation was abruptly canceled when the House members pulled out. They didn’t like the idea of airing their many differences in public, and they hate the Senate’s bill, too.
“I’m not going to go to a conference committee and just stare at each other,’’ said Eugene O’Flaherty of Chelsea, House chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “If we’re going to have a discussion it should be about the things that brought us together in the first place, which is what some consider a disparity in sentencing.’’
It’s a complicated picture, but I’ll take a stab at a summary. The Senate wants life sentences for those who commit three felonies - not all felonies, but three from among a long list. The House believes the list should be much shorter and limited to violent crimes. The House would also like to reduce sharply the number of mandatory minimum sentences for drug cases, and also decrease the size of school zones where drug crimes earn more severe penalties, from 1,000 feet to 100 feet, a notion that leaves the Senate cold. Governor Deval Patrick, who filed his own crime bill last year, is much closer, philosophically, to the House.
Activists say the bill passed by the Senate would drastically increase prison overcrowding, a building crisis that gets far too little recognition.
The notion of getting tougher on repeat offenders gained a huge boost when Woburn police Officer John Maguire was shot to death in 2010 by Dominic Cinelli, who had been paroled despite receiving three life sentences. The state’s Parole Board was overhauled in the wake of the Cinelli debacle, but that has not quelled the public outrage. Outrageous as the Cinelli case was, it’s still odd that some lawmakers are calling for tougher enforcement at a time when violent crime is down and the rate of parole has already slowed substantially.
The administration makes the argument that the state has a law to put habitual offenders away for long stretches of time, a law that has only been used 84 times in the past decade. But that law - which guarantees offenders a shot at parole after serving half their sentences - is so weak that prosecutors have simply ignored it. Advocates insist that a new law will be used far more often.
One expert who has come out swinging against the Legislature is retired federal judge Nancy Gertner, who is now teaching at Harvard Law School. In Gertner’s view, the proposed law is a solution without a problem. “This serves a political need, not a policy need,’’ Gertner said. “Sentences are going up and parole is going down. What they’ve done is way beyond the problem, and it’s an illusion to think it won’t increase the jail population.’’
Other states, concerned with prison overcrowding, have begun moving toward shorter sentences for nonviolent offenders. Massachusetts was doggedly liberal when the debate over prisons was being driven by conservatives, and is taking a right turn just as other states have come to question that strategy. Patrick’s initial idea was to dispense with mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenders and dramatically shrink school zones, measures that might relieve prison overcrowding. But while Patrick is likely to veto whatever comes out of the conference committee, he has largely lost control of the debate: The Legislature can, and probably will, override his veto.
That is, if they can ever sit in a room long enough to arrive at a final version of the bill. So far, talking out their differences has only driven them further apart.