Report details impact of sentencing bills
Few new inmates but much longer prison terms
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the estimate of a habitual offender’s extra time in prison under the House and Senate bills to Prisoners’ Legal Services. The estimate was actually made by the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission.
A new report suggests sentencing legislation pending on Beacon Hill would put relatively few new people behind bars but keep those defined as habitual offenders in prison for far longer periods of time.
Negotiations on the differing House and Senate versions are dragging into their fourth month, with supporters saying the legislation is necessary to keep the state’s worst criminals off the streets and critics arguing the bills would fill up the state’s prisons and increase corrections budgets by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Using 2009 sentencing data, the commission compared the current habitual offender law and the House and Senate proposals. Under current law, 235 people fall into the category of habitual offender, a number that would increase to 281 under the House bill and 307 under the Senate bill. The report indicated the House bill would send only 14 new people to prison, while the Senate bill would send nine.
Under both the House and Senate plans, a criminal convicted of a third felony would have to serve two-thirds of the maximum sentence before he or she would be eligible for parole, depending on the crime. On a life sentence, a person would have to serve 25 years. Currently, offenders are eligible for parole after serving one-half of a maximum term, or 15 years on a life sentence.
Both bills also provide for stiffer penalties for certain crimes. A person would automatically draw the maximum sentence and lose eligibility for parole if their third felony is a crime such as rape, kidnapping, or assault and battery with a weapon that causes serious injury. The Senate bill contains 59 crimes that result in the maximum sentences and no parole; the House recently trimmed its original list of 55 crimes to less than 30. Currently, first-degree homicide is the only crime that carries a sentence of life without parole.
Victims rights’ advocates believe that the sentencing commission report vindicates their long-standing view that the bill aims to get the “worst of the worst” behind bars and make sure that violent criminals serve the harshest possible sentence. “I think this [report] supports exactly what we’ve been trying to say from the beginning,” says Les Gosule, a Quincy resident and victims’ rights advocate.
Gosule has been one of the driving forces behind the legislation, also known as Melissa’s Bill, named for his daughter who was raped and murdered 13 years ago by a habitual offender who had been released on parole. “I don’t know how the other side can argue that this is overly broad-based and is going to affect a lot of people,” he adds.
Leslie Walker, the executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, says the real impact of the bill is on how long criminals will end up staying in prison at a cost to taxpayers of $46,000 a year. “No one is looking at the impact on the already overcrowded criminal justice system 10, 15, or 25 years from now,” she said.
According to the Sentencing Commission, any offender convicted as a habitual offender would serve an additional nine years in prison under the Senate bill and seven years under the House measure. Prisoners’ Legal Services estimates the extra cost would range from $13 million to $14 million a year, depending on the bill. But that’s only if all of those who would qualify as a habitual offender are convicted as habitual offenders, which is unlikely since the charge is often dropped as part of plea-bargaining agreements. (For further arguments made by Prisoners’ Legal Services after the story was originally published, see below.)
For Gosule, reducing the number of crimes that trigger a third strike would undercut the intent of the proposed law. “If the House of Representatives wants to pare down the number of felonies and type of felonies, I think it’s deplorable,” he says. “It takes the bill and it destroys it.”The conference committee must come up with a compromise plan before the Legislature adjourns its two-year session on July 31 or the bills will die. Gov. Deval Patrick has indicated that he favors a “balanced bill” which includes a narrower scope of crimes that zero in on the most violent repeat offenders.
[As the story says, Prisoners’ Legal Services estimated the extra cost of incarcerating all habitual offenders for one year would range from $13 million to $14 million. In an email, Jim Pingeon of Prisoners’ Legal Services says the total sentence cost for all of the habitual offenders would be $91 million to $132 million. He derived the $132 million number for the Senate bill by multiplying 307 (the number of habitual offenders) by $45,000 (the cost of incarcerating one prisoner for a year) by nine years (the extra time in prison). “You have to multiply by nine years because the prison system would get an injection of 307 new habitual offenders each year, and it will take nine-plus years for the system to reach a steady state (where each new defendant is balanced by one leaving). Perhaps a clearer way to reach the same result is to say that the overall increase in the total prison population would eventually expand by about 2,800. This is because each year you would have 307 new prisoners who would each have a sentence that’s nine years longer than under current law. It’s a little like damming a river; it takes a while for the water level to rise to the point where it spills over the dam. At that point water coming in equals the water going out, but now you have a deep pond behind the dam. Assuming prosecutors choose to seek habitual offender sentences against only one-third of the eligible defendants, the impact would obviously be less. Each year only about 100 prisoners would be sentenced as habitual offenders. But each would still serve an extra nine years, hence a prison population ultimately expanded by 900 prisoners, which would cost about $40 million each year.” ]