GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

April 17, 2012

State crime bill talks remain stalled

From Staff and Wire Reports

BOSTON — House Speaker Robert DeLeo's point man in talks with the Senate over omnibus crime and key sentencing legislation is raising the prospect that the two sides could fail to reach agreement and suggested that they consider passing a narrow bill that could win support.

In a Friday meeting with five other lawmakers negotiating the bill, Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty, D-Chelsea wondered whether the Senate would be open to jettisoning the bulk of its proposal — including changes to wiretapping, restraining order, drug and sentencing policies — in favor of a plan that would crack down on habitual felons.

"It would be a terrible shame to allow the session to expire without having dealt with habitual recidivist issues," O'Flaherty said at an afternoon meeting of the conference committee.

O'Flaherty pointed out that issues related to habitual offenders — most notably the shooting death of a Woburn police officer by a career criminal out on parole in 2010 — is "what originally brought us all to the table."

That proposal would require that offenders who commit their third serious felony face the maximum possible sentence without the possibility of parole.

That provision has also been a prime focal point for state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, who is on the joint conference panel negotiating a bill between the two chambers.

The so-called "three strikes" provision of the bill has also drawn intense Cape Ann interest due to a case involving Gloucester and former Manchester resident Starr Lloyd III, the twice-convicted Level 3 sex offender who is charged with open and gross lewdness in the presence of a 12-year-old girl in Gloucester, yet is free on $3,000 bail, with a Superior Court arraignment set for Salem on May 11.

Gov. Deval Patrick has also called for a bill that not only cracks down on repeat offenders but softens penalties for nonviolent drug offenders, a proposal he said would free up jail space and ensure that lower-level offenders get access to programs and treatment rather than let out on the street without support.

The Senate passed its wide-ranging bill in November shortly before a seven-week recess, and the House quickly followed suit, passing a bill that stripped all of the Senate's proposals except for the crackdown on habitual offenders.

The negotiating panel, led by O'Flaherty and Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton,, was named in December and has met intermittently since.

In addition to Tarr, it also includes Rep. Brad Hill, the Ipswich Republican whose district includes Manchester, Rep. David Linsky, D-Natick, and Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster.

Linsky suggested a balanced bill would include the crackdown on habitual offenders, changes to the operation of the Parole Board, changes to parole eligibility for nonviolent offenders and a shrinking of the zone around schools within which drug offenders receive a mandatory minimum sentence of two to three years.

"I'm also convinced we could get agreement on those four areas," he said. "It's the other areas that are going to slow down the process."

Linsky also argued that a reduction in mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders — embraced by the Senate — was "a recipe for recidivism" and a "non-intelligent way to run a system," because it would do little to prepare offenders to reenter society. He argued that extending earlier parole to those hit with mandatory minimum sentences, ensuring that they receive access to supports and programs, would be "much smarter."

Tarr suggested that the conferees convene a separate meeting to debate which specific crimes would trigger the so-called three-strikes component of the proposal. The House conferees recently struck dozens of crimes from the list, and Hill, the House Republican representative on the negotiating panel, said he felt strongly that several of them be reinserted.

Hill added that he's struggled convincing members of the House's 32-member Republican caucus to sign onto a broader bill.

"It has been a very difficult conversation to have with some of my caucus members," he said.

The conference committee adjourned with plans to reconvene Monday, April 23, the first day the House is set to begin deliberating its budget.

Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.