Don’t rush ‘three strikes’ before getting all the facts on crime

IT IS just over a year to the day since Domenic Cinelli, a recently paroled prisoner, murdered a Woburn police officer in the course of an armed robbery. Cinelli had a 35-year history of violent crime and, prior to his release, was serving three concurrent second-degree life sentences. However, legislation proposed on Beacon Hill designed to prevent a reoccurrence of this tragedy may have unintended consequences.

To prevent hardened criminals like Cinelli from getting back on the streets, the Legislature is considering a “three-strikes’’ law that would deny parole or any reduction in time served to felons who have been convicted three times of any of almost 60 serious felonies. It would also bump up the amount of time that “habitual offenders,’’ those who have been convicted of any three felonies, would have to serve before being eligible for parole, from half of their maximum sentence to two-thirds.

The bill, at least in the version that has passed the state Senate, also contains reforms intended to balance out the anticipated increase in the prison population. It would shrink drug-free school zones, areas in which harsh mandatory minimum sentences apply, from within 1,000 feet of a school — which is virtually everywhere in an urban area like Boston — to 500 feet. It would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession, with retroactive effect, allowing some prisoners to be freed immediately.


However, the legislation’s overall effect on the number of prisoners in Massachusetts is unclear. Prisoners’ Legal Services estimates that, if enacted, it would impose up to $125 million a year in extra corrections costs. Further, there are no data to indicate how many of those ensnared by the three-strikes law will be petty offenders as opposed to the hardened criminals the bill targets — let alone a statistical measure for how many drug deals happen 499 feet from a school rather than 501.

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Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Commission is set to release a sweeping review of statewide criminal justice policies in March. Lawmakers should wait the three months for that panel’s recommendations and then examine criminal sentencing in light of all the relevant statistics. There is no need to rush the patchwork adjustments in the current legislation.

But legislators need not sit idly by until the commission issues its report. They should act quickly to pass one section of the bill into law, which mandates that the Parole Board use a computerized risk-assessment tool to help determine which prisoners are likely to reoffend. Had it been in place in 2008, it would have likely prevented Cinelli’s release.

Aside from this simple measure, the Legislature should take its time to carefully study and comprehensively overhaul criminal sentencing. Three strikes may be a good pitch to voters, but state legislators need to be sure that the bill is hitting its target.