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Three-strikes bill critics call for more analysis

Key lawmakers stand fast on penalty

DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF

Jamie Ayers, a former inmate in the Massachusetts Department of Corrections system, got a round of applause after speaking at the three-strikes press conference at the State House.

Several key legislators said yesterday they are holding fast on a controversial three-strikes anticrime bill even as critics stepped up their campaign to press state lawmakers to change course on the measure.

“I haven’t talked to anyone who doesn’t believe in giving someone a second chance,’’ said state Senator Steven A. Baddour, a Democrat from Methuen who cosponsored the bipartisan habitual offender bill. “But when you talk about the most violent criminals, they don’t deserve a third chance.’’

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Critics of the bill - including prison reform advocates, black clergy, and legal scholars - took their case to the State House yesterday, demanding more study and analysis of the bill, which is in conference committee. Critics, who have appealed to statewide religious groups in opposing the bill, argue it would dramatically increase inmate overcrowding, prison costs, and the number of nonviolent offenders caught in the dragnet.

“If we want to change the Commonwealth, take care of people who need something and not just focus on punishment,’’ Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree said before roughly 200 people in an auditorium at the State House. “It’s the wrong focus, it’s the wrong bill, and we have to stop it right here and right now.’’

The House and Senate each passed different versions of the bill last fall. Both would mandate maximum sentences for people convicted on certain felony charges for a third time. It would also restrict their ability to get out on parole.

The bill emerged in an emotionally charged atmosphere after a parolee with a long, violent criminal history, Domenic Cinelli, shot and killed Officer John Maguire of Woburn in an armed robbery. Critics say it is an overreaction that would penalize many offenders who should not be put away.

But several supporters in the Legislature say they have been inundated with e-mail and phone messages from constituents who want tough anticrime legislation and that they plan to move forward.

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Representative David P. Linksy, a Natick Democrat who is also on the conference committee, lashed out at what he called critics’ misconceptions about the cost to the state and impact of the pending bill, which he said would affect 5 to 10 habitual felons each year.

“This only applies to the most serious, violent crimes,’’ he said. “This does not apply to drug offenses. It does not apply to nonviolent drug crimes or crimes such as breaking or entering. It is designed to affect the worse of the worst violent, repeat offenders.’’

In his State of the Commonwealth speech this week, Governor Deval Patrick demanded that new, tough punishments be coupled with his plan to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. He said state prison spending has increased 30 percent over the last decade because of longer sentences for first-time nonviolent drug offenders.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray have said they are committed to sending Patrick a bill balancing the desire to punish repeat felons with the need to ease prison overcrowding.

But the bill has become the center of heated community meetings and other debate, including yesterday’s State House press conference, where critics included Kathleen Dennehy, former Massachusetts correction commissioner; Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners Legal Services; and Carol Rose, head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

African-American religious leaders, including the Black Ministerial Alliance, the TenPoint Coalition, and Statewide Black Clergy for Unity, are attempting to rally churches to press their lawmakers to reverse course on the bill.

Some lawmakers said yesterday they have no intention of changing their vote. “I can’t say how strongly I support this bill,’’ said Representative Sheila Harrington, a Republican from Groton who said she was at the hearing when the Maquire family spoke in favor of a habitual offender bill.

“We can worry about the rights of criminal, but at what point are we going start listening to the victims?’’

Bruce Tarr, the Senate minority leader, disputed assertions that the bill would boost the state’s inmate population.

“The general population we are talking about is in prison,’’ he said. ‘We are talking about keeping them in.’’

Material from State House News Service was used in this report. Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.

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