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Proposed 'three strikes' bill draws community ire

Yawu Miller | 1/4/2012, 7:08 a.m.
State Rep. Carlos Henriquez and other members of the Black and Latino Caucus are urging their colleagues to...
State Rep. Carlos Henriquez and other members of the Black and Latino Caucus are urging their colleagues to vote against a bill that would require people convicted of three crimes to serve the maximum sentence for their crime without parole. Yawu Miller

A group of black activists is working on a statewide campaign to defeat a controversial bill that they say would impose harsh mandatory sentences on nonviolent offenders and increase the state’s prison population.

Backers of Senate Bill 2054 — known as the three strikes law — pushed for its passage after the December 2010 slaying of a Woburn Cop by parolled career criminal Dominic Cinelli.

The premise of the proposed law is simple: People convicted of three violent felonies would become ineligible for parole or reductions in sentencing for their third conviction and would receive the longest mandatory sentence for that conviction.

Additionally, anyone convicted of three felonies would be classified as a habitual offender and required to serve two-thirds of their sentence before being eligible for parole.

The details in the legislation are what have many in the black community worried.

For example breaking and entering into a car and other similar crimes are counted as violent felonies under the legislation. And the legislation also calls for post-release supervision of all convicts upon completion of their sentencing.

The net effect of the law would be an increase in the prison population and a substantial increase in the, cost of maintaining Massachusetts’ prison and criminal justice systems, according to the Rev. George Walters-Sleyon, director of the Center for Church and Prison.

“This particular three-strikes bill has serious implications for the community and does not provide any mechanism for rehabilitation,” he said.

In addition, Walters-Sleyon says, the bill would cost the Commonwealth at least $125 million per year in salaries for additional probation officers to implement post-release supervision. And that’s on top of the $47,000 a year Massachusetts spends on each inmate in its prison system.

“We only spend $10,000 annually for K-12 education,” he said. “In Roxbury and Dorchester you have schools being closed and programs being closed. The three strikes law is counter-productive.”

Saturday, Walters-Sleyon and other activists will be meeting at the Dudley Branch of the Boston Public Library at noon to discuss strategies to defeat the legislation, which has already passed in the Senate and House.

 In the House vote, only 12 legislators — including all eight members of the Black and Latino Caucus present — voted against the bill. Now, Black and Latino Caucus members are reaching out to their colleagues, urging them to withdraw support for the legislation.

“The bill came through the House so fast, no one had time to digest it and find out what it was about,” said 5th Suffolk District Rep. Carlos Henriquez, who represents Dorchester and part of Roxbury in the House.

Henriquez attributes the success of the bill to lobbying by families of murder victims. Political pressure from family members of Woburn cop John McGuire and his fellow officers focused the public’s attention on the state’s Parole Board, which had voted to free Cinelli in 2009.

“The system is run by humans,” Henriquez says of the Parole Board. “There are going to be problems with the system. But the Parole Board is not known for being lenient.”

The legislative fix — creating mandatory sentences for violent offenders — casts too wide a net, argues Cornell Mills, a community activist who is helping plan Saturday’s community meeting.

“It takes the power away from the judge and leaves it up to a statute,” he says. “Judges are trained to look at each case and decide them on their merits.”

At the meeting Saturday, activists will focus on ways to persuade legislators to withdraw their support for the legislation, which is now in a conference committee.

Black and Latino Caucus members will ask Gov. Deval Patrick to veto the bill when it gets to his desk, but the House can easily override the governor’s veto with a two-thirds vote.

Community activist Jamahrl Crawford notes that the number of  votes will have to increase from 12 to 55 to stop the veto override.

“There needs to be a public outcry,” he says. “This is an election year for state legislators. They want to show they’re tough on crime.”