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Strike three, you're out: Speaking out against 'three-strikes' legislation

Posted by Alex Pearlman  March 25, 2012 05:30 PM

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alcatraz jail cell.jpgBy Matt McQuaid

As recently as two years ago, Massachusetts' CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) system was being heralded for setting a precedent for effective reform of the criminal justice system. But now, critics say, the state legislature is about to move in the opposite direction on sensible crime policy.

Both chambers of the state legislature are drafting "three-strikes" legislation aimed at reforming the way sentences are handed out. The bills, S.2054 and H.3818, if passed, would mandate maximum sentences for certain types of felonies upon a third conviction and eliminate eligibility for parole for those felonies. The passage of these bills could come in the near future, according to one key lawmaker.

Opponents of the bills note that, among other potential effects, the legislation could have an adverse impact on young people throughout Massachusetts.

"Adding these more stringent and mandatory sentencing guidelines is going to tie the hands of judges," said Aaron Tanaka, 29, executive director of the Boston Workers Alliance. "Even if the judge sees that there's some potential for this person to turn over a new leaf, their hands are tied, and they're going to send them to a maximum sentence without parole."

Many of the bills' critics also note the lack of alternatives the legislature is offering to reduce crime. Programs that offer employment opportunities, education, and vocational training for ex-cons can help reduce recidivism. And while programs such as these certainly exist throughout the state, some young people coming out of prison just don't feel they're present enough.

Contact public officials. Click here to raise your voice on this issue."I just got out of jail in January, and they basically said, 'Get out.' Everything I had to do, I had to do on my own. Nothing was offered to me. If I didn't seek rehabilitation, I wouldn't have gotten it," said Jose Rivera, 21, of Pittsfield. "A lot of people that I know, they don't know anything about change or things like that. They don't show you that in jail."

Another concern that echoes among opponents is the effect that three-strikes legislation could have on overcrowding. The state's correctional facilities are already massively overcrowded, and any legislation that leads to more incarcerations will almost certainly make matters worse.

Morgan Benway, 28, of Springfield, just finished a five-year prison sentence. During his incarceration, Benway said, overcrowding led to an increase in incidents of violence. Tensions rose as multiple people were packed into one cell.

"If they pass this legislation, it's going to make things a lot worse," said Benway. "There's going to be a lot more fights, a lot more stabbings, a lot more deaths in those prisons."

Although legislators have added some positive amendments to the bills, including a measure that abolishes minimum mandatory sentences for non-violent drug offenders, since the original drafts, the view among many young people throughout the state is that this legislation could have an extremely detrimental affect on their futures.

"When I was locked up, I saw kids who were 16, 17 years old doing life sentences because of one mistake they made," Benway remarked. "If they do commit a crime, make them pay their debt to society. But don't give someone a life sentence for something petty. These kids should get a chance to make something of their life."

Photo by Bay City Guide (Flickr)

About Matt -- I'm a lifelong Democrat and writer of a politically-oriented column, "Banned in D.C." Hobbies include watching TV and listening to super-intense bands with mad-scary dudes that have tattoos and stuff.

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