The stakes are high when we begin talking about public safety, crime prevention and the overall functioning of the Massachusetts criminal justice system. Rhetoric like “tough on crime,” “three strikes and you’re out” and “if you do the crime, you do the time” are often bandied about when criminal justice reform appears on the horizon.
This week’s Boston Globe editorial, “Curb parole for violent crime, but rethink drug sentencing,” urged lawmakers “to create a stronger, fairer, and more economical criminal justice system.” While saying this will necessitate an “approach that cracks down on violent offenders while taking a fresh look at nonviolent drug offenders,” the editorial speaks to the importance of understanding the dynamic relationship between mandatory sentencing, parole and prison cell availability.
A bit of background. . .
Even before the Boston Bar Association published its 1991 report, The Crisis in Corrections and Sentencing in Massachusetts, the BBA has been on the forefront of discussions on how to make the MA criminal justice system more effective. We have long taken the position that mandatory minimums and their “one-size-fits-all” approach do not allow for judicial discretion to impose sentences that actually fit the crime.
We have yet to see the Senate bill to which the Globe editorial alludes. All we know is that the bill is expected to be taken up for consideration and a vote by the full Senate soon. While it’s unlikely there will be a public hearing on this particular bill, nobody can say it’s come out of left field. Let’s review a bit of recent history:
- December 2010 – A parolee released from a triple life sentence killed Woburn police officer Jack Maguire.
- January 2011 – All five members of the parole board, including the Executive Director, resigned. The governor, several legislators and a district attorney dusted off their own habitual offender bills and filed them in the legislature, producing an array of bills aimed at making changes to the current laws.
- September – All of these sentencing bills generated hours of public testimony at a hearing before the Judiciary Committee.
- Right now – A bipartisan group of senators, appointed by Senate President Murray over the summer, is at work producing a soon-to-be released parole bill.
What we do know from our more than 20 years of work in this area is that any parole reform or habitual offender bill that does not take into consideration mandatory minimum drug sentences is bad public policy. Parole and habitual offender reforms should be a part of a comprehensive crime package – but one that should include sensible mandatory minimum sentencing reform for drug offenses – because of the interrelatedness of our criminal justice system’s components. Parole reform, habitual offender legislation and sentencing reform are inextricably connected and the time has come for Massachusetts to implement measured change in this area.
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association