Monday, February 06, 2012

Debating Prisoners' Release

Two bills have been introduced in the Massachusetts House and Senate,
which are meeting a lot of protest from the local community,
especially among those of color. House Bill 3811 and Senate Bill 2504
would implement a “three strikes” sentencing policy. The issue is
currently in conference with state legislators, elected officials, and
criminal justice advocates.

The bill would require anyone being charged with certain offenses a
first or second time to serve two-thirds of their sentence before
being eligible for parole, while a third offense 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 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
at a recent panel discussion 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 in a recent editorial in the Boston
Globe: “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.”

Gertner is particularly “mystified” by the Massachusetts legislature's
repeated rejection of DNA testing: “No one is interested in the
imprisonment of an innocent man.”

Overcrowding averages 143 percent over capacity; one unit at MCI
Framingham is even at 331 percent over capacity. Judge Gertner
concludes that “if the new law increases the prison population as it
is likely to do, the Commonwealth will have to build more capacity
fast – costing $100,000 per cell. This is on top of the $1 billion a
year the state spends on incarceration. Worse yet, since the current
system is too strained to meaningfully invest in keeping prisoners
from reoffending, we are doomed to keep paying to house some of the
same prisoners over and over.”

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

Massachusetts does not have the death penalty, but it is the only New
England state that enforces life without parole for juveniles. Arnold
King has served 40 years of a life sentence for a shooting that
occurred when he was a teenager. While serving his time, King worked
hard to educate and improve himself, and became a valuable member of
the community. The former Massachusetts furlough program used to allow
prisoners temporary leaves of absence from prison in order to work,
participate in educational programs, visit family members, obtain
medical treatment, look for work upon release, attend a funeral or
other valid reasons. King went on 30 furloughs, during which time he
worked actively with the Rainbow Coalition, interned at the State
House, did a number of speaking engagements trying to curb youth
violence, and he was even married at Jamaica Pond while on a furlough.
His brother, Kazi Toure, states:

“Prisoners, piecing their lives back together, truly benefited from
this humane rehabilitation program as a way of reacclimating back into
society. But the program was shut down. Everyone who was a lifer was
pulled back behind the wall - where they have remained.”

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. For example, a man named Johnny Martorano, who
admitted to killing 22 people, was released from prison after
serving just 12 years, because he gave information about Dan Connelly,
the FBI agent, who let Whitey Bulger, the Rifleman Flemmi, and Stevie
Selemmi commit whatever crimes they wanted including murder for the
FBI, in order to get information about other crimes. Similar deals
have been given to supposedly dangerous Muslims incarcerated for
terrorism related offenses: they are often given softer sentences in
exchange for incriminating old friends.

Why are prisoners who are no longer a threat to society being kept
locked up, while other prisoners, including serial killers, are being
set free in exchange for 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. They reduce
incentive for good behavior, and increase the financial and emotional
calamities experienced by the families of those incarcerated, who live
in our community.


Karin Friedemann is a Boston-based freelance writer.

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