Tag Archives: sentencing

Mid-Session Legislative Update

The Legislature’s winter recess began last Wednesday evening – but not before some important pieces of legislation passed in both the House and Senate.  The reason for the winter recess?  Legislative rules require the House and Senate to break from formal session during non-election years as a way of preventing action on major bills so close to the holidays, a time during which the public may not be as attentive.  If two-thirds of members agree, the Legislature can return to session during their scheduled break.  This recess gives legislators time to spend in their districts and affords others a chance to do additional lobbying on bills expected to move next year.  Here’s a quick update on the progress of transgender civil rights, sentencing reform and important trusts and estates bills that the BBA is working on…

A victory for transgender rights!  When the House and Senate approved a bill to include gender identity and expression in the Commonwealth’s nondiscrimination statute and existing hate crime laws, Massachusetts joined 15 other states – along with Washington, D.C. – that already provide these protections for transgender people.  Governor Patrick, who supports the legislation, is expected to sign the bill soon.   While the final version of the Transgender Equal Rights Bill does not include protections within public accommodations, this is a historic and important victory for transgender equality in Massachusetts.

We have more work to do on sentencing reform. We had hoped that a bill denying parole for repeat violent offenders would also eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences for non-violent offenders. While we were pleased to see some elements of sentencing reform in the Senate version of the bill, we were disappointed that the House version only contained parole denial for repeat offenders.  We’re still hoping that a conference committee will be able to restore the Senate reforms relative to reduced mandatory minimum drug sentences.

Having just passed the midpoint of the 2011-2012 session, legislative rules now require that bills pending at the end of the first annual session carry over into the second annual session.  But let’s not forget that the portion of the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code dealing with estates goes into effect on January 2, 2012. Two important housekeeping proposals, the MUPC technical corrections and the Massachusetts Uniform Trust Code, are still pending and we cannot wait until the beginning of the next session to act.   A delay in passing these bills will put greater strain on an already overburdened Probate & Family Court.

While the House and Senate will continue to meet over the next few weeks in informal sessions, the second leg of the 2011-2012 begins in January and will continue until through July.

-Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association
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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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CORI Reform Is Just a Start — Sentencing Reform Is a Must

The BBA retains a spirit of dogged optimism as we wait for sentencing reform.  With just three months left in this two year legislative session and the Senate preparing to release their budget in less than two weeks, the legislature is moving closer to meaningful sentencing reform.  There have been years of protests, legislative proposals and public hearings.  But the sad truth is that the current system makes it extremely difficult for former offenders to straighten out their lives. 

Publicly the Governor, Senate President and House Speaker have all expressed their support for some sort of Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) reform.  The Senate did so most recently in December with the passage of a CORI bill that also included sentencing law changes for non-violent drug offenders.  The word is that the House will act within the next two weeks.  Let’s hope that their proposal doesn’t stop at CORI reform and includes meaningful sentencing reform.

For more than 20 years the BBA has been studying and advocating on these issues and strongly believes that it’s time to finally make these measured changes a reality.  We have sponsored and encouraged thoughtful study of our criminal justice system recommending changes — including repeal of most mandatory sentencing laws.   

In the present fiscal crisis, their adoption would have significantly positive economic and social impacts.  A combination of CORI and sentencing reform, plus post-release supervision, would accomplish cost-effective changes in our criminal justice system that enhance public safety, and facilitate offender re-entry and employment, while saving judicial and correctional resources for the most serious offenders. 

Employers often use CORI reports to help screen out prospective job applicants. On one side of the debate are supporters of the current CORI law who say access is needed to protect employers from hiring someone who might be a liability to their business. On the other side of the debate are the critics who contend that the widespread use of CORI reports often prevent ex-convicts from starting over and that an individual who has already paid his or her debt to society should be given a second chance and would be less likely to re-offend if they did not have to overcome barriers to employment, housing and other services.

The CORI law was created to control the release of information concerning an individual’s prior criminal history.  Initially limited to law enforcement officials, the law has been expanded to provide access to other organizations, particularly those that service children, the elderly and the disabled.  Maintaining accurate CORI information is important, as these reports can include not only an individual’s prior convictions, but also any pending charges as well as cases that ended without a conviction. This can include cases where the individual was found not guilty, or the charges were dismissed.  We need to find the balance between access and disclosure.

Ex-offenders, including those who have successfully completed a term of imprisonment, must be encouraged to obtain and retain productive employment.  Employed ex-offenders are able to support and house themselves, rather than remain an economic burden to the Commonwealth.  Right now, those with minor or long dormant criminal records confront complicated hurdles due to the way CORI records are handled when the ex-offenders seek employment or housing.  The current system is confusing and complicated and some employers have access to criminal information while others don’t. 

There seems to be support for some sort of CORI reform throughout the legislature. But CORI reform and sentencing reform must be viewed as interconnected parts of the solution.  CORI reform is not going to be as effective if inmates serve lengthy sentences that preclude access to re-entry opportunities.  Parole and work release eligibility for drug offenders would help transform appropriate candidates from expensive correctional burdens to contributing members of society. 

Sensible sentencing reform must include post-release supervision, and a system of presumptive post-release supervision for all offenders incarcerated in state prison. It’s intelligent and fiscally responsible and would avoid the current practice in which offenders often are released directly to the community after serving the maximum term of their sentence, without any transitional period.

The Commonwealth is now experiencing the most severe fiscal crisis in decades and this provides us with an opportunity to enact responsible sentencing and CORI reform.  Simply put, every offender who makes a successful return to the community as a result of these measures will be one less financial burden to the taxpayers of this state, and our communities will be made safer in the process.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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