Massachusetts Three Strikes Bill Needs Common Sense Approach

The Massachusetts Legislature has been busy debating a crime bill that would eliminate any parole eligibility for persons convicted three times of violent felonies. The general concern over allowing violent offenders access to parole has been gaining steam for several years now, but was brought to a head following the 20100 murder of a Woburn police officer by a prison inmate who had been paroled despite a lengthy history of violent offenses.

Predictably, there are two camps in this argument: Law and order advocates, who justifiably want our streets protected from violent prison inmates who have been released early on parole, and civil rights advocates, who argue that prisoners’ legal rights to parole may be eliminated in the rush to pass a strong anti-crime bill. What’s needed here is balance and perspective.

The objective of the bill is to remove parole eligibility for any inmates who have been convicted of three or more violent felonies, such as murder, or rape. That’s the very type of paroled inmate who murdered the Woburn police officer in 2010. That inmate should not have been released, and the overall approach makes common sense. But something often goes wrong between common sense and final outcomes,at least when it comes to our Legislature. As of right now, the current version of this bill would apply to almost 60 different felonies, including some that don’t typically involve violence, such as drug offenses. For example, in the current House version of the bill, a person convicted and sentenced twice for drug distribution could receive a life sentence after he or she is convicted on a third offense for, say, unarmed robbery.

In other words, the legislative net is cast too wide, and the focus of the bill needs to be narrowed to repeat offenders who commit unquestionable acts of violence. As a Dedham, Massachusetts criminal defense attorney who sees these cases all the time, I can assure you that if the focus of the bill isn’t narrowed to specifically violent offenses, then we’re going to end up imprisoning a lot more inmates than we have either the room or the money for. That’s not sound public policy, and it’s the taxpayers who will inevitably for the bill in the future for misguided actions now.