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Black community aims to block 3-strikes bill

Members of Boston’s black community will launch a major drive in suburban churches across Massachusetts today in an effort to block a three-strikes crime bill they say will exacerbate inmate overcrowding, increase prison costs, and disproportionately affect minorities.

The African-American opponents of the bill are hoping to enlist faith communities, including the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, and the Jewish Community Relations Council, in the effort.

The three-strikes bill would deny parole to felons who have been convicted three times of certain felonies; which felonies is a matter of negotiation between House and Senate.

Black leaders fear the bill could mean that people, a disproportionate number of them African-Americans, could spend a lifetime in jail for nonviolent offenses that don’t warrant such punishment.

The bill emerged in an emotionally charged atmosphere last year after a parolee with a long, violent criminal history, Domenic Cinelli, shot and killed Woburn police Officer John B. Maguire during a robbery attempt Christmas weekend in 2010. Black leaders recently began organizing opposition, but felt they needed support outside Boston.

“The key to this statewide mobilizing effort is to reach out to the clergy leadership in suburban and rural communities,’’ said the Rev. Eugene Rivers III, cofounder of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, who is helping to lead the opposition. “They have the institutional network for mobilizing their communities.’’

Rivers and his group will make their first public appeal today to religious leaders, including Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, across the state in cities and towns such as Acton, Dover, Framingham, Springfield, and Worcester. They will also take their case to the State House tomorrow in a similar effort to press Governor Deval Patrick to veto the bill if it passes.

“We are calling on the people of God to engage as public witnesses’’ and to examine the “financial and moral costs’’ of the legislation for themselves, Rivers said in a statement.

James Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, said he has not heard from the Boston group but his organization is receptive to anyone supporting the conference’s stance on the bill.

“If the bill is over-broad, it is not only a cause of concern for the church, but it will cause more overcrowding, which I don’t think the state can handle.’’

The measure is still in conference committee after versions of it overwhelmingly passed in both chambers of the Legislature late last year. But the House recently signaled willingness to embrace some of the broad changes the Senate plan would allow.

Amid the public outcry that followed Maguire’s slaying, the governor proposed an overhaul of the parole system and fired members of the parole board, and legislators reconsidered a long-delayed effort to crack down on violent repeat offenders. The bill that emerged from the Senate at the end of last year was far more sweeping, however: It would deny parole to felons convicted three times for any of roughly 60 serious felonies.

The list includes murder and rape but also some less serious crimes like breaking and entering during the daytime, and airport security violations. Opponents say being imprisoned with no possibility of parole for the lesser crimes would doom large numbers of offenders who could turn their lives around.

Community leaders say poor young black men are most likely to be affected by the law, but they are reluctant to frame their argument in racial terms, fearing it could then be marginalized.

“Quite frankly, this is Massachusetts,’’ said Benjamin F. Thompson, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition. “A black-white issue at the State House loses.’’

Instead, opponents are pointing to the potential cost and logic of continuing to warehouse more inmates. While voters want their politicians to be tough on crime, activists say, they do not want to spend all the state’s resources on housing inmates. Some critics assert the bill could cost an additional $125 million a year.

Supporters, however, say those estimates are unsubstantiated. Bruce E. Tarr, the Senate minority leader, a proponent of the bill and a member of the conference committee charged with negotiating the chambers’ different versions, said the Senate put the cost far lower - at $300,000.

“I don’t know where those numbers are coming from,’’ Tarr said. “I’m not sure in this Commonwealth that we ever ought to think of public safety as an accounting exercise.’’

State Senator James B. Eldridge, a Democrat of Acton who voted for the Senate bill, said he has heard from members of the religious community across his district, which includes Acton, Hudson, and Marlborough, who have been urging him to vote against a final three-strikes bill. Eldridge said he has filed amendments that would reduce sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses, but they were defeated.

“I have heard from members of churches in my district,’’ he said in a phone interview Friday. “And I share their concerns about the final bill.’’

The issue is a thorny one for Patrick, who plans to address it in his State of the State speech tonight. A spokeswoman said the governor will reiterate that any tough crime bill should be tempered by changes to mandatory sentencing laws.

The governor’s chief of staff, Mo Cowan, has contacted black ministers to argue the positive aspects of the Senate’s bill, noting that it would lower - but not eliminate - mandatory minimum sentences and shorten the time frame for parole eligibility for some drug crimes.

Opponents point to other states, such as California, that have moved away from three-strikes laws, blaming such legislation for increasing both prison populations and state expenses.

“Almost every other state in the country is moving from the three-strikes law,’’ said Eldridge. “I’m very concerned with the steps Massachusetts is taking.’’

Still, the bill has momentum and some version of it is expected to pass this year. Rivers said the move to oppose the bill faces long odds, but believes critics must put up a hard fight.

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached ebbert@globe.com.
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