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‘Three strikes’ bill up for vote this month

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Thirteen years to the day after his 27-year-old daughter, Melissa, was murdered, Les Gosule stood in front of the Massachusetts State House, pleading for the passage of a bill that aims to keep repeat violent criminals off the streets.

“She ended up being kidnapped, taken to the woods in Halifax, tied to a tree, stripped, raped and stabbed by a person who had 27 convictions,” said Gosule at last week’s press conference. “Why did something like that happen?”

For more than a decade, Gosule has been pushing the Massachusetts legislature to pass what he calls Melissa’s Bill, which would require harsher prison sentences and reduce or eliminate parole eligibility for repeat offenders.

Last fall, the Senate and the House approved different versions of the bill; now, a draft version awaits approval by a conference committee before it can be officially voted into law. Legislators have until July 31 to make a decision on the final bill.

While Gosule has found support among some conservative lawmakers, many activists, particularly from communities of color, are stepping up efforts to oppose what they call the “three strikes” bill.

“One of the most interesting things about this legislation and the reaction to it is that that community has really mobilized itself in ways that I haven’t seen in a long time,” said David J. Harris, managing director of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute, which recently released a report detailing the problems of the new bill.

If the bill passes, he went on, “it would be another instance in which the voices of communities of color go unheeded.”

Massachusetts already has a habitual offender law on the books. It states that if a person is convicted of two felonies, and serves at least three years in state prison for each of those crimes, then a third conviction will automatically result in the maximum sentence. The new versions of the law, however, up these penalties.

The first section would delay parole for non-violent crimes. As Tatum Pritchard, a staff attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, explained, under the current law, a prisoner is eligible for parole after half of the maximum sentence; the new law, however, would push this back to two-thirds the maximum sentence.

One draft of the bill also changes the definition of a strike from three years or more in state prison to just one day. Prisoners’ Legal Services was among more than a dozen organizations to write a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick in opposition to the bill.

But it’s the second part of the bill, which applies to violent offenses, that has Pritchard and others most concerned. According to her, the third conviction of a violent crime—as defined by the House and Senate—would guarantee a maximum sentence without the possibility of parole.

“So no parole, ever,” she said. This means that for a crime such as armed robbery, a person could be sentenced to life in prison without parole. “The only crime for which life without parole is currently allowed is first-degree murder,” she added. “If this law passes there would be about 20 new crimes for which people could get life without parole.”

In addition to costing taxpayers an enormous amount of money—the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute’s report estimates the bill would require as much as $125 million per year—and sweeping many more people into the criminal justice system, Pritchard pointed out that the bill would skew power away from judges and onto prosecutors.

Judges would no longer have the discretion to dole out punishments based on the circumstances of the case—and the defendants—but would be confined to the mandatory sentences the law imposes on them. Instead, this authority would rest with the prosecutors, who decide which crime a person is charged with.

“The judge needs to be able to look at the facts of the case and determine what the appropriate sentence is,” she said. “But under the habitual offender law, they can’t do that.”

According to Harris, the new bill would dramatically affect communities of color. “To us, it’s almost like a double-whammy, because communities of color are largely and disproportionately affected by high rates of incarceration, and at the same time our communities are also some of the hardest hit by crime and violence,” he said.

Instead of putting money toward rehabilitation programs, such as drug and mental health treatment, jobs and education, critics argue the bill would simply allot more money toward incarceration.

“The amount of money we spend incarcerating prisoners on an annual basis—for many of the lower-level offenders—could be much more efficiently spent in ways that would help them become and remain productive members of society,” Harris said.

As for the claim made by Gosule and other proponents that the bill would keep violent criminals off the streets, Harris said: “I don’t think anybody—especially in communities of color—wants to leave extremely violent people on the street.”

“I don’t think they have any high moral ground to talk to us about how we feel about getting violent people off the street—we want them off the street as well,” he continued. “But we don’t want, in the process, to catch up all the others. It’s too blunt an instrument. To be effective in dealing with the truly violent and truly dangerous, we need to be targeted and focused, and we can’t be broad and random.”

Harris hopes that lawmakers will use this opportunity to take a broader look at public safety. “It’s time that we stop nitpicking around the edges and start to think about how to do this in a comprehensive and coherent way,” he said. “And I think they have the opportunity to do that. If they really want to honor the people who have died, and the families of the people who have died, that’s what they will do.”