The Massachusetts House overwhelmingly voted in favor of a compromise version of the tough-on-crime “three strikes” bill Wednesday night that would eliminate the possibility of parole for habitual criminal offenders, while reducing some mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
The legislation now heads to the Senate, where it is expected to be debated Thursday.
If passed, the controversial proposal would end a decade of stalled attempts to change the way repeat criminals are sentenced.
“Does it go as far as some people would like? Probably not. But it is a step forward,” House Speaker Robert DeLeo said in an interview Wednesday night, adding that he believes the revised legislation will earn approval from both the Senate and the governor. “It’s a major step forward from where we were,” DeLeo said.
A compromise brokered between House and Senate trims the number of crimes that could potentially count toward the loss of parole eligibility, from the proposed 67 to 46. Those who accumulate three such offenses, known as three strikes, or those who are given more than one life sentence would lose the chance for parole. But offenders would have to be sentenced to at least three years in state prison for the offense to count against them.
The latest version of the bill would also reduce the minimum required sentences for drug offenders on a case-by-case basis, while increasing the amount of drugs that would trigger a mandatory sentence.
But it does not include required supervision of felons after they are released from prison, or an expansion of state wiretapping laws, two provisions backed by Governor Deval Patrick.
A spokeswoman for Patrick declined to comment on the revised bill, adding that the governor’s office has yet to fully review it.
House support for the bill, in a 139-to-14 vote, came despite opposition from the black and Latino caucus, whose 10 members slammed the compromise Wednesday, saying it removes judges’ ability to determine sentences and does not fully eliminate mandatory minimum sentences.
In a statement, the caucus expressed disappointment that the bill “imposes new burdens on our courts and prisons while doing too little to promote rehabilitation for nonviolent offenders and prevent recidivism.” Implementing the bill will cost $100 million over the next 15 years, they said.
“At least 17 states have enacted similar legislation, and what the research shows is that there is a disparate racial impact and the prison population will grow,” said Benjamin Thompson, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition and an opponent of the legislation.
Thompson contends that Massachusetts lawmakers have ignored studies arguing that similar laws addressing habitual offenders in other states have not worked.
One report, issued in June by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, concluded that the Bay State’s proposed “three-strikes” law would be costly and might not improve public safety.
“We never asked them to not come out with a new sentencing bill,” Thompson said. “What we asked them to do is please look at evidence and not make the bill a knee-jerk reaction to a couple of horrific crimes.”
Public outcry over the killing of Woburn police Officer John Maguire on Christmas weekend in 2010 by a repeat criminal out on parole renewed lawmakers’ push for the bill last year.
But Representative Eugene O’Flaherty, longtime chairman of the Judiciary Committee, made it clear Wednesday that he is uncomfortable with some of the provisions in the compromise, though he ultimately urged his colleagues in the House to pass it.
“[The bill] makes sure that the most violent repeat criminals out there are not preying upon children or other victims and that if they’re serious criminals that they be treated seriously by our judicial system,” he said.
House approval of the bill comes as many states are moving away from repeat offender laws. Few states have passed new laws in recent years, said Alison Lawrence, a policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“We’ve seen many states looking at adjusting or getting rid of mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level, nonviolent crimes such as some drug offenses,” she said. “The whole idea is that you want to preserve prison for the most dangerous criminals.”
The governor has previously supported a version of the bill that would have allowed those convicted for a third time to be eligible for parole after serving the majority of their sentence. It remains unclear if the omission of that provision and others Patrick has supported could mean he refuses to sign the legislation if it is approved by the Senate.
One of the bill’s most vocal supporters says he remains confident that the governor will sign off on the compromise.
“He shook my hand, gave me a few hugs, and told me that once the bill is balanced he would support it,” said Les Gosule.
In 1999, Gosule’s daughter Melissa was raped and killed by Michael Gentile, who had previously been convicted of 27 crimes. Gosule’s push for a change in state law led to the legislation becoming known as Melissa’s Bill.
But not all involved in the Gosule case believe the revised version goes far enough. Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe, who prosecuted Gentile, slammed the compromise as bad policy that will only affect a few people each year and urged Patrick to veto it.
But Gosule insists that the compromise is a move in the right direction and could help protect future victims.
“I won’t know who, you won’t know who, but there are a lot of innocent people out there who won’t be harmed because of this,” he said.