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February 6, 2012

House leader courts Tarr on sentencing reform

BOSTON — Without the opportunity for House members to vote on key pieces of a Senate crime bill, House Judiciary Chairman Eugene O'Flaherty says he believed he could sell a compromise bill to the full House that toughens penalties for repeat violent offenders and includes Senate plans reducing mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders, lowering drug weight limits that trigger tougher sentences, and slashing the size of school zones with special penalties for drug dealers.

O'Flaherty made his offer Friday to three Senate members of a conference committee, including Gloucester-based Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, who are negotiating an omnibus sentencing reform package that cleared the House and Senate in different forms late last year.

The House passed a much narrower bill that only dealt with repeat violent offenders by eliminating parole after a third felony — a measure that is also included in the Senate bill.

The positioning from the House Friday appeared to open a window for compromise on a bill that has drawn protests from social justice, prisoner and religious groups for its "harsh" approach to dealing with repeat offenders.

If House conferees agree to provisions of the Senate bill not addressed by the full House, the consensus bill would not be subject to amendments, only up-or-down votes in the branches.

The Senate bill included numerous provisions reducing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, including a decrease from five years to 3 1/2 years for trafficking between 2,000 and 10,000 pounds of marijuana and a reduction from five years to 3 1/2 years for possessing or distributing a Class A drug like heroin after one similar offense.

Though not speaking for his fellow conferees or the House, O'Flaherty said he would prefer to see the school zones that trigger harsher penalties for drug offenses reduced to 100 feet, from 1,000 feet.

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