Legislative approval of the so-called Three Strikes Law was a foregone conclusion last week, but that did not make the bill any easier for David Harris to swallow.
Harris helps run the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, and he has done extensive research on sentencing laws. His conclusion is that this law is an ill-conceived idea.
“We have some legislation that is in response to a terrible crime,” he said. “But we can’t build public policy in response to a single crime. If you think about the communities that are most affected by crime, they’ve said pretty clearly they are against it.”
The notion of life sentences for repeat violent offenders gained new momentum when Woburn Police Officer John Maguire was killed in 2010 by Dominic Cinelli during a botched robbery.
In response to that case, as well as those of a few other high-profile killers, lawmakers decided to fix the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, they did not decide to hold a substantive debate on how to effectively fix the system. Even more unfortunately, the voices of those who think longer sentences are not a panacea were drowned out by those who believe permanently locking up repeat offenders will solve the problem.
In the end, the House and Senate passed substantially different bills that took months to reconcile. The finished product now heads to Governor Deval Patrick for approval. It contains some thoughtful provisions, including reducing the number of crimes that are subject to mandatory-minimum sentences. But it also eliminates judicial discretion in sentencing for three-time offenders and, critics say, will increase prison overcrowding.
In fact, they believe that the effect of the law has not been studied nearly enough and that there is scant evidence that this bill will do anything to drive down violent crime. Even such basic questions as the cost of the bill, or how many people will be affected by it, have not been answered with any clarity.
There is no getting around the fact that support for the bill broke largely along racial lines: the Legislature’s Black and Latino Legislative Caucus unanimously opposed it, while most of their white colleagues supported it.
“It’s almost like pitting legislators against communities of color,” Harris said. “But who cares? It was politically expedient.”
Patrick’s options include signing the bill, sending it back with amendments, or vetoing it. A veto is unlikely, especially since it passed by veto-proof margins. But the opponents hold out hope that he will push for significant amendments before the bill wins his approval.
“The governor could make this part of his legacy, to stop the madness,” said Leslie Walker (no relation), executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, an advocacy group. “No criminal justice bill should be based on emotion. The willingness to remain ignorant in the face of facts is incredibly disappointing.”
Advocates hope Patrick will push for restoring judicial discretion, looking further at mandatory minimum sentences, and devoting more to reentry programs, according to Benjamin Thompson of the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition. In fact, the move to longer sentences is ebbing nationally, as states struggle with larger (and more expensive) prison populations and voters who don’t want to build more prisons.
No one disputes that John Maguire’s assailant belonged in a cell. But that doesn’t mean this bill will prevent further such tragedies. Patrick still has a chance to make his voice heard, and he should use it.