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Feb 22

Three Strikes is an Error for Bay State

The Worcester Telegram & Gazette

By Clive McFarlane

February 17, 2012

Jamie Domiano-Ayers’ husband was an addict and, as a result, she became one, too.

And when her husband landed in jail, she said, she had to come up with the money to satisfy her addiction.

She did, illegally, compiling a rap sheet between her mid-20s and early 30s that included convictions on assault and battery with dangerous weapons and breaking-and-entering charges.

But today, Ms. Domiano-Ayers, 49, has recovered from that dark period of her life.

She talked of her successful drug treatment, of her educational attainment — an associate’s degree in business administration in 2004 and her current pursuit of an associate’s degree in human services.

She is also proud that she has helped raise her five children to lead strong and productive lives.

But successful rehabilitation stories such as hers will likely occur a lot less in the future if Massachusetts lawmakers push through a “three strikes” bill that dramatically increases jail time for repeat criminal offenders, according to several speakers at a forum Wednesday at St. Andrew the Apostle Church on Spaulding Street.

According to speakers at the forum, a legislative conference committee is weighing two versions of a three strikes bill, both of which would increase the types of crimes for which an offender could be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Tatum Pritchard, a lawyer with Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, said 688 infractions are classified as felonies in Massachusetts. Under current law, a third conviction on any of these felonies could draw the maximum sentence, with or without parole opportunities, she said.

Under the Senate’s version of the bill, 59 of the 688 felonies would draw maximum sentences, including 22 felonies that would draw life sentences. The sentences for these 59 felonies would be served without parole.

Currently, according to Ms. Prichard, only a murder conviction carries life without parole in the state.

The House version of the three strikes law reduces the number of felonies that carry maximum sentences without parole to 55, removing four that lawmakers felt were not serious enough offenses to meet such harsh penalties.

Ms. Pritchard said her organization is pushing to remove at least nine more low-level felonies from the list of 55.

She also noted that under current law, a defendant must serve three years or more in state prison before any of his convictions qualifies under the three strikes law.

However, under the House bill, that incarceration period for each conviction would be reduced to one day or more in state prison.

More significantly, qualifying conviction time for three strikes offenses that carry the maximum sentences without parole has been reduced to one day or more in a state prison in the House bill and to one day or more in any facility in the Senate bill.

“This means that people who have only spent a day or two in a county jail and who have never been to state prison can now get the maximum sentence without parole on a third conviction,” Ms. Prichard said.

She is also troubled that unlike the three strikes law in other states such as California, the bills before the Massachusetts Legislature remove judges’ discretion from sentencing.

That means the state’s 14 district attorneys would have the upper hand in these cases, she said.

Ms. Domiano-Ayers, who is now a member of the Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement board of directors, said she is skeptical that prosecutors would show much empathy for a defendant with low-level convictions such as hers.

“If these bills were the law of the land years ago, I would have been put away for 10 years and that would have had a devastating impact on my family,” she said. “My children more than likely would have been placed in foster care, and there is no telling what would have happened to them.”

Critics of the bills say they are not asking lawmakers to be soft on crime, but for them to check the abundance of available research on three strikes law and to listen to both sides before making a decision, steps legislators seem unwilling to take, according to Benjamin Thompson, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition in Boston. He who spoke at Wednesday’s forum.

“They (legislators) are people of good will who have made a bad decision by pushing public policy that was developed and crafted on emotion alone,” he said.

He is right, but there is still time for lawmakers to act rationally. There are too many lives at stake for them not to listen to both sides on this issue.

 

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