New "Three Strikes Law" Is Far Reaching

Early in August, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed a new "Three Strikes" bill into law. The law amends many criminal sentencing provisions. Most importantly, it removes judicial discretion in sentencing in many cases. Certain past crimes will automatically qualify as a "strike," no matter the fact pattern, and could trigger a mandatory, heavy sentence whether the sentencing judge agrees or not.

Three Strikes laws have been enacted by many states to punish repeat criminal offenders. After three separate felony convictions, or "strikes," offenders are permanently "kicked out" of society - that is, they're sentenced to prison for life. The reasoning behind these laws is that those who repeatedly commit felonies likely pose a serious threat to society and should be imprisoned for the greater good.

Momentum for passing the bill increased after John Maguire, a veteran police officer in Woburn, was killed in 2010 by a repeat offender who had been on parole after having been sentenced to three life terms.

The law does reform mandatory sentencing for non-violent drug offenders. The governor said that the revisions would allow nearly 600 prisoners to be paroled and therefore save the state millions of dollars. School zones have been reduced from 1000 feet to 300 feet, and offenses taking place between midnight and 5 a.m. no longer qualify. The length of minimum mandatory sentences has been reduced across the board.

The new law would, however, dramatically increase the types of crimes for which an offender could be sentenced to life in prison without parole. Previously, murder was the only crime that carried a mandatory life sentence. The new law outlines two dozen felonies for which a third-time offender would automatically be sent to prison for life, including rape, robbery with a firearm, home invasion and certain child abuse crimes.

Also included is a mandate that the Massachusetts Parole Board use a computerized risk-assessment tool to help determine which prisoners are likely to re-offend.

Recognizing the potentially harsh consequences of a "three strikes" provision, the new law allows habitual offenders convictions to be petitioned for direct review with the Supreme Judicial Court ("S.J.C."). The law grants the S.J.C. the discretion to order a new trial or to reduce the verdict.

During the oftentimes contentious debate regarding the law, many experts expressed concerns about the costs of lengthy incarceration and the inevitable over-crowding that will result. Critics say the legislation would add about $125 million a year to Massachusetts' $1 billion-a-year corrections budget. Also, many predict that the "three strikes" law will disproportionately impact poor and minority populations. Advocates for civil liberties argue that the law will have a substantial impact for those defendants without the resources or ability to obtain top-notch counsel, and for the conditions in the state's already over-crowded prisons.

Time will tell the true impact that the new law has on crime, the state's finances, and prison populations.