BOSTON — The state's House chairman leading prolonged negotiations with the Senate Minority leader Bruce Tarr and his colleagues Senate on an omnibus crime and sentencing bill said Thursday that he believes lawmakers are close to a compromise, though other say there are some issues still to be resolved.
Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said the House had received the Senate's latest counteroffer delivered last week.
The activity within the conference committee comes as the Legislature prepares to enter its final month of formal sessions. The competing bills that cleared the House and Senate tackling habitual offenders, parole eligibility and reduced mandatory minimum sentencing for certain drug offenses have been in conference since last November.
The crux of the bill is a proposal to require that offenders who commit their third serious felony face the maximum possible sentence without the possibility of parole — driven in part by shooting death of a Woburn police officer by a career criminal out on parole in 2010.
Sen. Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), the lead Senate negotiator, told the State House News Service that the Senate had agreed to drop its insistence that a final bill include an expansion of wiretapping authority, which has been backed by Attorney General Martha Coakley and was a priority of former Sen. Steven Baddour before he resigned from the Senate.
But while Rep. David Linsky, one of the three House conferees, said he believed the lawmakers were "very, very close on the meat of the issue," he raised concerns he had with current proposals to retroactively reduce sentence lengths for certain drug trafficking crimes.
The Senate's bill had proposed reduced sentences for drug trafficking based on the weights of the narcotics found in possession of the felon. Linsky said it would be a mistake to apply such changes to current inmates and allow them to walk out of prison without parole supervision or re-entry services.
"I think that's a recipe for disaster," Linsky said.
Though the number of serious felonies that would trigger a third-strike elimination of parole had been whittled down to 33 in negotiations, Tarr, R-Gloucester, and O'Flaherty acknowledged that Rep. Brad Hill, the Ipswich Republican whose House district includes Manchester, had several crimes he still wanted to discuss.
The bill has drawn additional interest in Cape Ann as charges against a Level 3 sex offender, Starr Lloyd III of Gloucester and formerly of Manchester, continues to inch through the courts. Lloyd, who has two prior sex-related convictions, remains out on bail — though he has been monitored since May through a personal tracking device.
Despite the Senate conferees taking a month to respond in writing to the House's last counterproposal made on May 24, Tarr said that, given the short time remaining in the session, he hoped the House would respond "expeditiously."
In a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland, and legislative leaders, organizations with major concerns about the impact of sentencing reform urged lawmakers to shelve their plans until they request and receive recommendations from the Pew Center on the States, a move that would kill policy proposals that have made their deepest run yet in the Legislature.
The groups argue that there's a lack of analysis behind House and Senate plans to eliminate parole eligibility for three-time violent offenders, caution the policy change will increase the prison population by as many as 2,000 inmates, cost between $90 million and $130 million, and require construction of new prisons in a system that's already well over capacity.
O'Flaherty said the letter "has some content in it that any individual legislator should consider when making decisions of such gravity, including changing sentencing laws and other criminal justice policy issues."
As for postponing action on the bill, O'Flaherty said most of the issues have been vetted for years in committee, have been supported by the House or Senate or both, and have support from the governor. "In terms of delaying an issue because of further study, respectfully I would suggest that's not where we are at this point," he said.