Calling out ‘three strikes’
Is the country’s most notoriously failed law coming to the commonwealth?
By CHRIS FARAONE Boston Phoenix January 4, 2012
Three nights before Christmas, hundreds of concerned citizens crammed into the St. James African Orthodox Church in Roxbury to address what one civil-rights activist calls “the most stunningly racist piece of legislation” to hit Massachusetts in decades. The group was gathered to seethe about a pending statewide “three strikes” law, which would imprison certain classifications of repeat offenders — violent and non-violent — for extremely long sentences, including life without parole. Among those who came to inform folks about the bill was Harvard University School of Law professor Charles Ogletree, who cranked the volume in his turn.
“You should be fired up,” he said. “We’ve never seen our system so insane, horrendous, backward, and unjust.”
Indeed, “three strikes” has been a proven failure. These measures are often passed by reactionary politicians looking to appear tough on crime. But in case study after case study, in state after state, these policies have had little deterrent effect, leading instead to swollen prisons, bureaucratic nightmares, and, in the case of California, straight-up financial ruin.
“Three strikes” bills have also struck minority communities disproportionately hard. A 2004 study by the nonprofit and nonpartisan Justice Policy Institute found that Latino and African Americans were imprisoned under California’s three-strikes law at rates far higher than whites. Furthermore, this type of punitive legislation has also come under fire from a broad range of critics for its financial impact; last year the conservative-leaning United States Supreme Court even acknowledged the devastating effect of California’s “three strikes” law, ordering the state to free 34,000 inmates from its overcrowded prisons.
The measure currently sits in committee limbo after passing both the State House of Representatives and State Senate, and is expected to arrive on Governor Deval Patrick’s desk sometime soon.
“This is an attack on the ‘hood, plain and simple,” says community activist Jamarhl Crawford, who will co-host a follow-up “three strikes” forum — along with representatives from groups including the NAACP and the Center for Church and Prison — this Saturday at the Dudley Square library. Among other things, they’re worried that the bill could hand out life sentences for crimes like illegal gun possession and breaking and entering— charges that, activists say, are often maliciously applied in minority communities. Crawford continues: “Now that activists are really looking at the bill, we’re all convinced that it’s overreaching to the point that it’s even more fucked up than California’s law that pushed them toward bankruptcy.”
CHARLES OGLETREE The Harvard Law professor calls the proposed “three-strikes” law “insane, horrendous, backward, and unjust.”
Of the local legal experts and activists who are rallying against “three strikes,” none expected such a law to be enacted here. The commonwealth, for all its flaws and blue laws, is renowned for setting progressive precedents on such issues as gay marriage and CORI reform. Furthermore, the Massachusetts Department of Correction is already brimming with non-violent offenders, and operating at more than 40 percent over-capacity. A widely targeted “three strikes” law like the one proposed would only augment that problem, adding what opponents of the bill claim could be an annual cost of up to $100 million.
“This is horrible,” says Lyn Levy, executive director of the highly successful Boston-based ex-offender advocacy group Span, Inc. “The way that it was done was ignorant beyond reproach — there was little research into any of the longer-term ramifications. . . . It’s as racist a piece of legislation as I’ve ever seen in this state. I can’t believe that it’s actually happening.”
HOW IT HAPPENED
On December 26, 2010, career degenerate Dominic Cinelli murdered Woburn police officer John Maguire while attempting to rob a Kohl’s department store. The heinous action was in character for Cinelli, who was also killed in the shootout. What especially enraged many was that Cinelli was a repeat offender out on parole. In 1985, while in violation of a prison furlough, Cinelli shot a security guard during a botched jewelry-store heist in Downtown Crossing.
Cinelli, who had been serving three concurrent life sentences, was freed in 2009 by a six-member parole board that was chaired at the time by Mark Conrad, a former campaign worker and driver for the governor. Two other Patrick appointees were also on the board, which voted unanimously to parole Cinelli despite his history of violent drug-related offenses.
Public hysteria ensued, and the state’s criminal-justice system came under harsh scrutiny. As radio talkers reeled, officials summoned a legislative chorus to condemn repeat offenders. Patrick tightened the parole pipeline. In their turn, the Senate tacked a “three strikes” section onto the end of an elaborate 25-page bill that also addressed a range of other criminal-justice issues, including drug and mental-health treatment for prisoners, post-release supervision, and reductions in mandatory minimum sentencing rules.
After months on the back burner, on November 15 the comprehensive “Act relative to habitual offenders, sentencing and improving law enforcement tools” passed the Senate unanimously. Eleven days later, the House presented its own version of the bill, which stripped every last progressive measure and left in only the “three strikes” element. Ignoring loud disapproval from a handful of left-leaning lawmakers, including all members of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus (MBLLC), the House overwhelmingly passed their bill by a vote of 142-12, as friends and family members of Maguire, who was slain nearly a year earlier, waved and smiled from the gallery.
“There’s no reason to rush this bill,” says State Representative Carlos Henriquez, a member of the MBLLC whose district includes high-crime sections of Dorchester. Henriquez supports much of the original Senate bill — particularly reform of sentencing mandates — but says the threat of “three strikes” supersedes all that for the time being, and is working to at least stall the legislative process. “The way it was done put a lot of us in a bad situation,” says Henriquez. “And for those of us who represent communities of color, they put us in a horrible position.”
SWINGING FOR THE BLEACHERS
Opponents of “three strikes” in Massachusetts say that they need to swing for the bleachers to defer imminent passage. “It’s going to take a lot of work to get legislators to undo what they’ve already done,” says Leslie Walker of Prisoners Legal Services. Legendary criminal defense attorney Max Stern sees an even more daunting scenario: “It’s going to take a miracle to stop this in its tracks.”
In their campaign, activists are informing the public and state officials of the proven ineffectiveness and financial burden of “three strikes” elsewhere. One California study by the Justice Policy Institute concluded that counties using “Three Strikes most frequently had no better declines in crime than those that used the law more sparingly.” Elsewhere, the trend has skewed away from these measures; Arizona passed a comparable law six years ago, but before that the last states to embrace “three strikes” did so in 1996.
Still, such lessons haven’t registered in Massachusetts, where legislators are currently behind closed doors, negotiating a compromised version of a law-enforcement bill that Patrick will be likely to sign. No one knows exactly what that draft might entail, but sources say that it will probably include progressive measures from the original Senate bill, along with a narrower version of “three strikes” than is currently on deck.
“I don’t know what happened in the background and behind the scenes to speed up the process so fast,” says Henriquez. “That’s above my pay grade. But I do know that there are a lot of people who are extremely determined to stop this. Personally, I’m hoping that it takes a while before anything happens, because there are a lot of important issues at hand here that were clearly ignored up to this point.”
Chris Faraone can be reached at email@example.com.
Follow him on Twitter @fara1.