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Three-strikes rhetoric heats up

With election on horizon, measure gets serious look

Sonia Chang-Diaz “agonized’’ over her initial vote in the state Senate but then supported the three strikes law. She’ll decide on the final version when she sees it.

Public outcry over the killing of Woburn police officer John Maguire on Christmas weekend in 2010 by a hardened criminal out on parole gave state Representative Bradford Hill a chance he had been waiting a decade for — winning approval in the House for his tough-on-crime three-strikes bill.

Now he has another ally in his push to get it passed: an election year.

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With November looming, analysts say lawmakers may already have in mind a nugget of political wisdom — that voting against crime bills like the three-strikes proposal could become potent ammunition for opponents to accuse of them of being soft on crime.

“ ‘Three strikes and you’re out’ is so seductive in how the public perceives it,’’ said James Jennings, a professor of urban policy at Tufts University. “There is a rhetoric and there’s a frenzy out there. And some lawmakers may not be strong enough to stand up to that.’’

Since lawmakers approved three-strikes legislation by overwhelming margins last fall, critics have mounted an aggressive campaign, saying it is overly broad and would condemn to long prison sentences many nonviolent criminals and a disproportionate number of minorities. But even as some of that criticism has gained traction with statewide religious groups, few lawmakers appear willing to reconsider.

“I think it’s pretty clear that most people want us to be tough on crime and get tougher on crime,’’ said Representative Harriett L. Stanley a West Newbury Democrat who is not planning to change her support for the measure. “You never say never, but I am not particularly persuaded by what I’ve heard in the last few days from opponents.’’

The legislation seeks maximum sentences and restricts eligibility for parole for felons who offend a third time.

Black clergy, prison advocates, and groups such as the NAACP have recently lobbied hard against the bill, arguing that it would have a disproportionate impact on black and Hispanic communities.

They have also asserted it would cost the state millions, strain an already overcrowded prison system, and adopt a three-strikes law just as other states, including California, are abandoning them.

Legislative leaders have just as vehemently retorted that the proposal in committee is nothing like failed three-strikes laws in other states, and is not the draconian proposal that critics make it out to be. They also say the number of offenders affected by the law would be small.

george rizer/globe staff

“I think there’s an opportunity to reach some common ground,’’ said Eugene L. O’Flaherty, a Democrat from Chelsea.

Much of the controversy stems from the Senate crime bill, which includes a three-strikes provision. It would impose strict restrictions on eligibility for parole for a wide variety of crimes and includes stiff penalties not only for violent offenses but others such as larceny by check and wiretapping.

A conference committee is now hashing out differences between House and Senate versions before it goes to both chambers for a final vote. If approved, it would go to Governor Deval Patrick, who has said he would support a balanced bill that also eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

With the bill having been stalled in committee for weeks, Eugene L. O’Flaherty, House chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said on Friday that the House and Senate are seeing room to negotiate.

He said the House could accept Senate provisions such as one reducing mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders. “I think there’s an opportunity to reach some common ground,’’ said O’Flaherty, a Democrat from Chelsea.

When a final bill comes to a vote, Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, who represents a patchwork district that includes the affluent and largely white neighborhoods of Back Bay and Beacon Hill and poorer, predominantly black neighborhoods of Mattapan and Dorchester, said she faces a difficult choice.

She said she “agonized’’ over her initial vote but ended up supporting it. She declined to say how she will vote on the final version until she sees it.

“When I talk to people in the district on why I voted yes, I’ve gotten a range of response,’’ she said. “Some people say ‘I wish you’d use the symbolic power of the Senate to cast a no vote.’ That’s very compelling to me.’’

Representative David P. Linsky, a natick Democrat and a member of the conference committee, said lawmakers are taking every opportunity to ensure that only the most violent offenders stay longer in state prison. He said he will support whatever emerges from committee.

“Anyone who has been in the Legislature for any period of time knows that we get comments on every issue, and we factor in all of those comments in reaching a decision,’’ said Linksy, a former Middlesex County prosecutor. “I went through gay marriage. This is nothing compared to that.’’

The State House News Service contributed to this report. Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.
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