Gov. Patrick introduces wide-ranging crime bills

Issue June 2009 By Peter T. Elikann

A flurry of long-awaited public safety and anti-crime bills proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick were released in early May. The bills cover a variety of long-debated areas of criminal justice policy, including prisoner reentry, Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) reform and mandatory minimum sentencing and gun crimes. For many of these topics, such as mandatory sentencing and CORI, they represent the first attempt at reform by a governor in almost two decades. Though obviously subject to revision as they wend their way through the Legislature, the following is a summary of the proposed bills.

Parole eligibility, supervised release and mandatory minimums
In a bill titled An Act to Prevent Crime and Reduce Recidivism by Increasing Supervision and Training Opportunities for Inmates, it is noted that massive numbers of Massachusetts prisoners are released from state sentences without supervision because numerous laws don’t allow parole eligibility, behavior that precludes parole, or inmates who choose to dictate the terms of their release by waiving parole.

It cites that, of those Massachusetts prisoners released without supervision, 35 percent were re-incarcerated within two years. For those with post-release supervision, 17 percent were re-incarcerated. The bill notes that, if passed, not only will it lower the recidivism rate, but it will save the taxpayer money, as it currently costs $43,000 per year to incarcerate an offender in state prison, while supervision costs $2,500.

Highlights of the bill include the following:

  • Inmates released from state prison will be under mandatory supervision for a period equal to 25 percent of their sentence, but no longer than five years or shorter than nine months.
  • Inmates serving mandatory minimum drug sentences, who are currently never eligible for parole, could be paroled after serving two thirds of their maximum sentence (e.g., an offender serving a 10-15-year sentence, could be paroled at 10 years).
  • Additionally, drug offenders serving a mandatory minimum sentence would now, for the first time, while still incarcerated, be eligible for work release, treatment and community corrections programs.
Changes in the CORI law
  • A bill titled An Act to Enhance Public Safety and Reduce Recidivism by Increasing Employment Opportunities claims to create a more accurate criminal records system and enhance a former offender’s chances of getting a job while assisting potential employers in a variety of ways. It lists the following features:
  • Automatically seals felony convictions 10 years after the sentence is completed, as long as there are no subsequent offenses;
  • Automatically seals misdemeanor convictions five years after the sentence is completed, as long as there are no subsequent offenses;
  • Will exempt sex crimes and homicide convictions from sealing;
  • Continuances without a finding will be considered non-convictions;
  • Offenders will know whoever accessed their records.
  • The creation of a Web-based fingerprint-based system to better ensure accuracy;
  • Subjects will be assisted in correcting their own inaccurate records;
  • Misuse of CORI will be audited and enforced;
  • Employers, rather than having to hire private data-collecting companies, will be given reasonably priced instant access to CORI records, will receive education and training, and be exempt from negligent hiring lawsuits when they rely on the state database;
  • In order to inquire, employers must receive a waiver from the offender and permit the offender to review the record to contest its accuracy;
Gun law reform
An Act to Reduce Firearm Violence is the Patrick administration’s bill to correct what it perceives to be shortcomings and loopholes in the current gun law that it aims to strengthen. Among the wide-ranging proposals are:
  • Limiting gun purchases to one a month (as an attempt to block “straw purchasers” who buy guns for felons or other prohibited buyers);
  • Creation of a new 10-year felony for possessing a gun while committing a misdemeanor involving the use of force;
  • Gun crimes will be subject to pre-trial detention through the use of dangerousness hearings (in response to a May 4 Supreme Judicial Court decision that exempted gun possession cases from dangerousness hearings). There would also be a presumption of dangerousness for those using force with a firearm;
  • Changes the definition of “firearm” so that prosecutors won’t have to prove through experts that the gun is operable;
  • Requires individuals who resell their guns to do it through a licensed operator so that a record of ownership exists and the purchaser is subject to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System;
  • Bars anyone other than a person with a machine gun license or a police officer trained in machine guns from handling one (in response to the 2008 tragedy at a gun exhibition in Westfield where a child was killed);
  • Requires transmission to the database of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System court records of all mental health adjudications, including involuntary commitments;
Peter T. Elikann, a criminal defense attorney in Boston, is a former chair of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section and the Corrections and Sentencing Committee. He is an on-air commentator for the TruTV Network and is the author of two books on the criminal justice system.