BOSTON (AP) — Ending months of negotiations, a House-Senate conference committee on Tuesday approved an overhaul of the state's criminal sentencing laws that would bar parole for three-time violent offenders while also reducing some mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.
The compromise was approved on a 5-1 vote, with the Senate's lead negotiator casting the lone dissenting vote. Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, objected strongly to several late changes offered by House negotiators.
"While I represent the Senate, I have my own self to think about and look in the mirror and say, 'Do I feel comfortable with how we ended up,' and the only way I can represent that is my vote today."
The compromise still needs the backing of the full House and Senate before the legislative session ends July 31.
"This has not been an easy process," acknowledged Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty, D-Chelsea, the top House negotiator.
The crackdown on habitual violent offenders — sometimes called a "three strikes" provision — has for years been championed by Les Gosule, whose daughter Melissa Gosule was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 1999 by a man who had 27 prior convictions. Gosule made an emotional appeal for passage last week on the 13th anniversary of his daughter death.
The bill would eliminate the possibility of parole for felons convicted three separate times of serious violent crimes ranging from murder to child rape to certain types of assault.
Both chambers passed versions on the measure last fall, but the Senate included it in a broader anti-crime bill that also included the changes in mandatory minimum sentences.
As members of the conference committee struggled for months to reach consensus, their differences were aired in public, as the panel broke tradition with most other Beacon Hill conference committees that routinely hold negotiations in secret.
Creem objected to the removal from the final version of the bill a "safety valve" that would, in limited cases, give judges discretion to grant parole eligibility to three-time violent offenders after they had served at least two-thirds of their sentences.
She also said she was "confused" as to why the House opted at the eleventh hour to strip out a call for a study by an existing crime commission of ways to further reduce mandatory minimum sentences, which have been criticized for clogging jails with people who might be better served by community-based programs.
"This bill achieved a goal of mine to take the most heinous and the most violent criminals off the streets of (Massachusetts) after three felonies," said Rep. Bradford Hill, R-Ipswich, one of two Republicans on the conference committee.
Hill added that the negotiations had changed his thinking about mandatory minimums and that he would back a bipartisan effort for further sentencing reform in the next legislative session.
Critics of the habitual offender measure argue it will disproportionately target minority groups and lead to more prison overcrowding.
Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts, said she was disappointed by the committee's vote.
"There is no data to support this bill as anything that's going to deter crime, and anything that's going to positively impact public safety," Walker said. "This is an emotional bill, not a thoughtful bill."
Walker said opponents would appeal to Gov. Deval Patrick to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.