‘Three strikes’ bill up for vote this month

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 7/18/2012, 8:06 a.m.

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.”