Opposition mounts against 'habitual offender' bill

Yawu Miller | 11/22/2011, 4:22 a.m.

A new bill aimed at creating mandatory life sentences for habitual violent offenders goes too far and could put nonviolent offenders behind bars for life as well, according to civil rights activists.

An Act Relative to Habitual Offenders, Sentencing, and Improving Law Enforcement Tools passed the House last week with 142 yes votes and 12 no votes, which came from members of the Legislative Black and Latino Caucus and four of the most liberal white representatives.

“While we in the Legislature have never been lenient to people in our communities who commit heinous crimes, I feel that the Habitual Offenders Bill is too broad and will adversely affect a person who commits a misdemeanor and who will be pooled into the same punishment as a person who commits a more heinous crime,” said 7th Suffolk District Rep. Gloria Fox. “This is why I and my colleagues were and are not in favor of bill H3811 as it is written today.”

State Rep. William Brownsberger, who represents the 24th Middlesex District in Belmont, said the wording of the bill makes it possible for a nonviolent offender to end up incarcerated for life.

“Under the bill as amended, a person twice convicted of retailing cocaine and twice sentenced to state prison who was then convicted of an unarmed robbery would receive a mandatory life sentence.  Some unarmed robberies are not serious offenses — any forcible grab of money or property is an unarmed robbery,” Brownsberger wrote in a blog on his website. “A young man could turn 21 in prison doing life without ever having committed a crime of distinctive violence.”

The bill gained momentum after paroled convict Domenic Cinelli shot and killed a Woburn Police officer last year. Gov. Deval Patrick fired five members of the board who voted to grant Cinelli parole despite his extensive criminal history.

Boston Branch NAACP President Michael Curry says the Legislature is overreacting to the problem of habitual offenders by passing a law as draconian and California’s “three strikes” law.

“No community in the Commonwealth is more impacted by violence than the city of Boston,” he said. “However, despite this fact, we can’t have a knee-jerk reaction to law enforcement. We remain concerned that with the unequal enforcement of the law and now with the potential consequences of a habitual offender bill that will further destabilize our communities and lead to over-and-prolonged incarceration.”

The NAACP was one of 30 black and Latino organizations statewide that issued a statement against the habitual offenders bill.

“This bill will have a devastating impact on communities of color throughout the state and is far too important to rush through without adequate time to analyze the potential impact and to develop a viable strategy to combat crime without increasing already alarming rates of incarceration,” said Jamarhl Crawford, editor of the Blackstonian website.

At a meeting last week with members of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, community activists called on elected officials in the House to postpone a vote on this bill.

The activists expressed concern with the prevalence of wrongful convictions and police misconduct in the Commonwealth, as well as the impact this proposal could have on people with drug and alcohol addictions.

The Center for Church and Prison also released a statement in opposition to this legislation last week, citing concerns with prison overcrowding, mandatory post-release supervision and increases and mandatory minimum sentences.

“Mandatory post release supervision would be forced upon all people incarcerated in Massachusetts prisons, thus increasing the revolving door of recidivism,” said the Center’s Executive Director Rev. Dr. George Walters-Sleyon.

“The proposed mandatory post-release supervision could cost approximately $11.6 million per year just for new parole officers but even greater and uncalculated costs would be incurred through speeding up a former prisoner’s return to prison due to the increased number and kinds of infractions for parole violations under the bill.”