Local officials split on crime reform bill

August 10, 2012
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Local elected officials are split on “Melissa’s Bill,” a so-called “three strikes” crime reform bill that imposes mandatory sentences on repeat violent offenders.

The bill is named after Melissa Gosule, a 27-year-old Jamaica Plain resident who was raped and murdered by a paroled violent criminal in 1999.

Local state Rep Jeffrey Sánchez voted in favor of the bill, while local state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz voted against it.

Gov. Deval Patrick signed the bill on Aug. 2. The state Legislature had rejected an amendment by the governor on July 30 that would have given judges more discretion in sentencing.

Sánchez said he was initially against the bill, but his opinion was swayed in part by the recent violence in Jamaica Plain’s Hyde/Jackson Square area. Six men were shot in that area between May 26 and July 2.

“I feel we are investing a lot of money in programming to help people out, but I’m at the end of my rope trying to figure out what to do,” said Sánchez.

Sánchez and Chang-Díaz are both members of the state Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, which crafted a letter in opposition to the bill. Sánchez was the only member who did not sign the letter.

“I’m a member of the Black and Latino Caucus and other caucuses, but at the end of the day I vote my conscience,” said Sánchez.

The representative said the bill targets the most violent criminals in the community who have no regard for life.

“It’s too much. One [shooting] is too much. It has to stop,” he said.

Chang-Díaz had several problems with the bill, but her main opposition came down to mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offenders. The bill reduces, but does not eliminate, them.

“I voted no to show there is more we can do,” she said.

The senator initially voted in favor of an earlier version of the bill. She had to defend that vote during a JP community meeting in January, where mandatory sentencing was widely criticized.

Chang-Díaz said the initial bill came up very quickly last year in the Senate and did not go through the usual committee process. Once it was apparent there were enough votes to approve the bill, Chang-Díaz became involved in negotiations with the Senate leadership to help improve the legislation.

She said she was then left in a quandary whether to vote symbolically against the bill or approve it, signaling she negotiated in good faith with the Senate leadership.

“It was the hardest decision I’ve made in my three-and-a-half years in the Legislature,” said Chang-Díaz.

She added, “Sometimes I think it was a good decision. Sometimes I think it was a bad decision.”

After her initial vote, Chang-Díaz said she and the state Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, of which she is a member, attended many community meetings and were able to get behind a unified position. That position manifested itself in the form of the aforementioned letter, which advocated for a bill that eliminates mandatory sentencing “in order to promote more effective and equitable sentencing.”

Chang-Díaz said the most notable and frustrating thing for her is that people she and the caucus represent are the most affected by violent crimes. She said some solutions from those people, such as a significant reduction of the drug school zone, were implemented in the bill, but a whole host of other solutions they suggested weren’t.

If a person is caught with drugs within a school zone, the punishment is increased significantly. But because there are so many schools in urban areas, virtually anywhere in a city is in a “school zone.”

The senator did say they were able to move the conversation in the right direction.

When asked about Patrick’s comments about wanting the Legislature to address mandatory sentencing at a later date, Chang-Díaz replied, “Yes, exclamation point. I completely agree with that.”

She said many members of the Legislature have said they should.

“I hope people will follow through on their word,” said Chang-Díaz.

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