GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

February 6, 2012

House leader courts Tarr on sentencing reform

From Wire and Staff Reports

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.

The Senate bill reduced school zones to 500 feet. A Senate amendment to drop the zone to 250 feet failed last year on a vote of 6-29.

O'Flaherty told Tarr that he believed the conference committee could also include changes to the operation of the parole board included in the Senate bill, such as an expansion of its membership.

Tarr, who has been pushing both parole reforms and a tightening of state drug distribution laws, expressed an openness to working with the House, though he said he had reservations about taking issues off the table at the outset of negotiations.

He acknowledged that prompt resolution of the bill was important because of the potential budget impacts the bill could have on corrections funding.

Rep. Brad Hill, the Ipswich Republican who represents Manchester and sponsored House legislation creating a three-strikes law, attended the conference committee meeting, but did not comment on the proposals.

Gov. Deval Patrick has called for the Legislature to send him a "balanced bill."

O'Flaherty said that, beyond the key areas where he felt he could create a "nexus" between keeping violent criminals behind bars and releasing non-violent offenders to relieve prison overcrowding, he felt it would be difficult to get House members to agree to other provisions such as an expansion of wiretapping laws and mandatory post-release supervision without a full House debate.

"It would be very difficult for me to go back to my members, and I say this respectfully, with a more bloated bill," O'Flaherty said.

Senate conferees said they might have the same problem in that branch if they return with a less comprehensive piece of legislation.

As the conferees met, opponents of the habitual offender bill held a press conference in Gardner Auditorium critiquing the bill as "punitive and harsh" that will add millions in costs for prisons.

"We condemn the three-strikes bill (filed by Hill)," said. Rev. George Walters-Sleyon of the Center for Church and Prisons. "We feel that is harsh, very punitive and does not provide any preventive or rehabilitative mechanism that basically looks at a long-term preventative effort and as a matter of fact we strongly believe it undermines public safety and community security."

The conference committee members agreed to have their staffs begin the work of drafting compromise language on the issues laid out by O'Flaherty while the senators go back to their leadership and members to discuss whether a scaled-back bill might be accepted.

Unlike the Senate, which engaged in months of talks with stakeholders over the various pieces of its bill prior to its vote, O'Flaherty said the Senate passed "up to 30 or 40 other matters that you folks added by amendment on the Senate side and sent to us with 48 hours to go before a recess."

In the interest of getting a bill that addresses public safety done in a timely manner, O'Flaherty said, narrowing the scope of the bill should enable the conference committee to reach a deal before debate over the state budget and health care reform "subsume" the branches.