Opinion and Editorial

Debating prisoners’ release

Karin Friedemann (ISSUES)
Filed on January 25, 2012

Two bills have been introduced in the Massachusetts House and Senate, which have been met with a lot of heated protest from the local community, especially from those of colour.

House Bill 3811 and Senate Bill 2504 would implement a “three strikes” sentencing policy. The issue is currently being debated by state legislators, elected officials, and criminal justice advocates.

These bills would require anyone being charged with certain offences a first or second time to serve two-thirds of their sentence before being eligible for parole, while a third offence would receive the maximum prison sentence without possibility of parole. The Senate bill is more lenient than the House bill, as it introduces some leniency towards drug offenders and targets only dangerous or violent criminals. The House bill considers any and all felony convictions as counting towards the three strikes. Opponents of these bills are being asked to contact state lawmakers in hopes of revising these bills so that prison times will not be extended for non-violent offenders.

State Representative William Brownsberger received a standing ovation during a recent panel discussion at the Dudley Square Library on the “three strikes” bills for saying this “isn’t a black and Latino issue, it’s a human issue.” Nancy Gertner, a retired judge from the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts, wrote a recent editorial in the Boston Globe, which asked: “Why is Massachusetts moving in a direction opposite that of other states - retaining life without parole for juveniles, refusing to enact post conviction DNA testing statutes and more recently, proposing a new version of the discredited “Three Strikes and You’re Out” crime approach?... Existing get-tough policies have pushed our system to the breaking point.”

Overcrowding averages 143 per cent over capacity in Massachusetts; one unit at MCI Framingham is even at 331 per cent over capacity.

Mississippi and Texas have implemented far more intelligent reforms. By reserving prison space for the violent while instituting rehabilitation programs for low level offenders, Mississippi has cut its prison population by 22 per cent, saving roughly $450 million, according to one study. Texas enacted similar reforms in 2007, saving $2 billion. Crime rates in both states have substantially declined.

Massachusetts already has repeat offender laws. Massachusetts does not have the death penalty, but it is the only New England state that enforces life without parole for juveniles.

While there has been a reduction in clemency towards prisoners who have tried to better themselves, there has been an increase in the practice of reducing prison time or releasing prisoners – in exchange for acting as an informant.

Why are prisoners who are no longer a threat to society being kept locked up when their entire neighbourhood wants them home, while other prisoners, including serial killers, are being set free in exchange for dubious information?

There needs to be more public involvement and oversight of the process by which prisoners are granted or denied a second chance at life. Three-strikes laws don’t protect the community but collectively punish taxpayers as well as incarcerated individuals.

They reduce incentive for good behaviour, and increase the financial and emotional calamities experienced by the prisoners’ families, who live in our community.

Karin Friedemann is a Boston-based freelance writer

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