A joint legislative panel working for months on a measure regarding sentencing reforms for habitual offenders voted 5-1 late Tuesday night to support a compromise, but several members expressed reservations about the outcome, including Newton Sen. Cynthia Creem, the chief Senate negotiator who voted against the report.
Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty, the lead House conferee and longtime Judiciary Committee co-chairman, said he would support the compromise, but had concerns about eliminating judicial discretion, and questioned the reactionary way laws sometimes are assembled on Beacon Hill.
At the core of the anti-crime and sentencing reform bill are provisions that would make certain three-time habitual felons ineligible for parole.
“We shouldn’t be making law based on who screams the loudest or who can tell us the worst story,” he said. “We should be making law that I think makes sense in terms of what society wants.”
The agreement struck between House and Senate negotiators — including state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, an ardent supporter of stiffer sentencing measures for repeat felons — brings the proposal known as Melissa’s Law one step closer to completion.
Gov. Deval Patrick has said he wants to sign a “balanced bill” that couples sentencing reforms to ease prison overcrowding with a crackdown on habitual offenders. O’Flaherty said this bill strikes a balance and if lawmakers can move the bill to Patrick’s desk, it will be up to the governor to decide if that balance is the one he is seeking.
Les Gosule, whose daughter Melissa was raped and murdered in 1999 by a habitual felon, has been especially pushing for a strong habitual offender law for years, and the initiative gathered steam this session following the 2010 shooting death of Woburn police Officer John McGuire by repeat offender Dominic Cinelli. The habitual offender initiative agreed to by the conference panel covers 46 crimes, and felons would have to be sentenced to at least three years in state prison for one of those crimes to qualify as a strike on their record.
After a third strike, or for felons serving two life sentences, parole eligibility would be eliminated. But the state prison provision would exclude cases such as the one involving twice-convicted, Level 3 sex offender Starr Lloyd III, who faces new charges stemming from a February incident in Gloucester and is free on bail, though on home confinement with a monitoring device. The Lloyd case, combined with a string of multiple drunken driving cases, sparked added interest in the sentencing reform measure across Cape Ann.
“I think we at last have a product which is in the best interests of the public safety of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and first and foremost a product which responds to the public safety threat which is posed by those who would recidivate with regard to violent felonies,” Tarr said.
Instead of Patrick’s proposal to make drug offenders eligible for parole after serving two-thirds of their sentence, the conference committee opted for the Senate’s sentencing reform plan that would increase the drug weights associated with certain crimes, and reduce the mandatory sentences those crimes carry. The conference bill would also reduce the size of school zones that carry increased penalties for drug offenses to 300 feet from 1,000 feet, and would nullify special school zone penalties for infractions between midnight to 5 a.m.
The bill would allow police to take DNA cheek swabs, instead of blood samples, from convicted felons to reduce the backlog of samples, and individuals would be protected from prosecution under a “good Samaritan law” for calling 911 in overdose emergencies. Also, drug offenders would be allowed to earn good time credits while serving their sentences for participation in occupational and service programs available to other inmates, and prisoners serving a life sentence would need two-thirds support from the Parole Board to be released early under supervision.
Officials did not have estimates on how much the bill could cost the prison system, or how many habitual offenders might be affected by its provisions, though O’Flaherty said the number incarcerated would be “extremely low” and negated by those serving less time on drug crimes. Critics of the habitual offender measure say its sweep is too broad and its passage will worsen prison overcrowding.
But Rep. Brad Hill, the Ipswich Republican whose district includes Manchester, said he would stand in bipartisan fashion to get something accomplished.
“It has been my goal for over 10 years, through the original filing of Melissa’s Bill and zealous advocacy, to pass legislation that ensures the most heinous and violent criminals remain behind bars in order to protect the citizens of the commonwealth,” Hill said.
Material from the State House News Service was used in this story.