Tag Archives: habitual offender

Let’s Be Smart About Sentencing and Parole

The stakes are high when we begin talking about public safety, crime prevention and the overall functioning of the Massachusetts criminal justice system.  Rhetoric like “tough on crime,” “three strikes and you’re out” and “if you do the crime, you do the time” are often bandied about when criminal justice reform appears on the horizon.

This week’s Boston Globe editorial, “Curb parole for violent crime, but rethink drug sentencing,” urged lawmakers “to create a stronger, fairer, and more economical criminal justice system.”  While saying this will necessitate an “approach that cracks down on violent offenders while taking a fresh look at nonviolent drug offenders,” the editorial  speaks to the importance of understanding the dynamic  relationship between mandatory sentencing, parole and prison cell availability.

A bit of background. . .

Even before the Boston Bar Association published its 1991 report, The Crisis in Corrections and Sentencing in Massachusetts,  the BBA has been on the forefront of discussions on how to make the MA criminal justice system more effective.  We have long taken the position that mandatory  minimums and their “one-size-fits-all” approach do not allow for judicial discretion to impose sentences that actually fit the crime.

We have yet to see the Senate bill to which the Globe editorial alludes.  All we know is that the bill is expected to be taken up for consideration and a vote by the full Senate soon.  While it’s unlikely there will be a public hearing on this particular bill, nobody can say it’s come out of left field.  Let’s review a bit of recent history:

  • December 2010 – A parolee released from a triple life sentence killed Woburn police officer Jack Maguire.
  • January 2011 – All five members of the parole board, including the Executive Director, resigned.  The governor, several legislators and a district attorney dusted off their own habitual offender bills and filed them in the legislature, producing an array of bills aimed at making changes to the current laws.
  • September – All of these sentencing bills generated hours of public testimony at a hearing before the Judiciary Committee.
  • Right now – A bipartisan group of senators, appointed by Senate President Murray over the summer, is at work producing a soon-to-be released parole bill.

What we do know from our more than 20 years of work in this area is that any parole reform or habitual offender bill that does not take into consideration mandatory minimum drug sentences is bad public policy.  Parole and habitual offender reforms should be a part of a comprehensive crime package – but one that should include sensible mandatory minimum sentencing reform for drug offenses – because of the interrelatedness of our criminal justice system’s components.  Parole reform, habitual offender legislation and sentencing reform are inextricably connected and the time has come for Massachusetts to implement measured change in this area.

 

-Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association
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Myths of Mandatory Sentencing

It seems everyone agrees that Massachusetts’ criminal sentencing laws need improvement.  Public safety, crime prevention, and punishment are important things to consider when contemplating any reforms in this area.  Yet it’s also important to understand that laws aimed at significantly lengthening prison sentences and making them mandatory, or changing parole eligibility, will impose more costs on our criminal justice system.

For the first time, the Legislature may be debating a habitual offender bill this session.  Earlier this week, we learned that these habitual offender bills, though seemingly losing steam after an emotional hearing before the Judiciary Committee in March, have been actively considered behind the scenes.

At the public hearing on March 16th, there were three bills under consideration that dealt with mandatory minimum sentences for serious crimes, including one that would eliminate parole for repeat violent criminals, with no regard to the facts of an individual case.  The other two bills, as currently drafted, would expand mandatory minimum sentencing to non-violent offenses including drug crimes, check fraud, and even tax evasion.  Although well-intentioned, these proposals capture crimes that, while being harmful to society, do not present a danger to the general public.

Because of time constraints, the BBA did not analyze the details of each of the bills.  But the BBA does oppose mandatory minimum sentences, with the exception of crimes mandating life imprisonment for murder.  The bills are overly broad, do not exclude nonviolent drug offenses, and would undoubtedly result in lengthy and costly sentences.  Here are some of the reasons the BBA opposes mandatory minimum sentences:

  • they have caused prison and jail overcrowding;
  • they have resulted in an increase in court congestion;
  • they have not reduced our serious crime problem;
  • criminal sentences need to correspond with each offender’s individual culpability and still give judges discretion.

Mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases are notoriously unjust because the laws do not differentiate between the drug kingpin and the first time drug offender.  As a result, prisons are being filled with low-level drug offenders serving protracted sentences.

Currently in Massachusetts, convicted felons are eligible for parole after serving half of their sentence, except for first-degree murderers, who are not eligible for parole.  Those convicted of second-degree murder must serve 15 years of a life sentence before they are eligible for parole.

By failing to take a nuanced approach we could end up with very serious and unintended consequences.  Massachusetts needs to be both tough, but also smart, on crime.

Any habitual offender law that the Legislature considers needs to be drafted so that only the most violent offenses are targeted.
– Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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