State Rep. John J. Binienda (D-Worcester) joined his colleagues in the Massachusetts Legislature this week in passing a sentencing bill that cracks down on habitual offenders and establishes new requirements to improve the functions of the state parole board.
“This bill takes a balanced approach towards fairness and commonsense in the state’s judicial policy by keeping offenders who are beyond reform off the streets and giving certain nonviolent offenders the opportunity for a better future,” Binienda said. “The conference committee worked very hard on this legislation and I commend Speaker DeLeo and Chairman O’Flaherty for their leadership on this complicated, but vital, issue.”
"This legislation is both tough and smart on crime and the Commonwealth will be a safer place because of it," said Judiciary Chairman Eugene L. O'Flaherty (D-Chelsea).
The bill requires the habitual offender tag to be placed on anyone convicted of two crimes from a list of the most serious offenses, including murder, rape and kidnapping. It mandates that any habitual offender found guilty of a third offense from the list of most serious crimes would be ineligible for parole.
“It has been my goal for over 10 years, through the original filing of Melissa’s Bill and zealous advocacy, to pass legislation that ensures the most heinous and violent criminals remain behind bars in order to protect the citizens of the Commonwealth,” said House Minority Whip Bradford R. Hill (R-Ipswich). “This legislation is balanced in a way that takes the initial step towards lessening nonviolent drug sentencing and opens the door for further rehabilitation opportunities, which are currently not available.”
The legislation also closes a loophole that currently prevents federal sentences from counting toward habitual offender status.
The bill raises the parole eligibility threshold to a two-thirds vote of the parole board from the current majority vote for anyone serving a life sentence and allows judges to set an imprisonment term between 15 and 25 years before an initial parole eligibility date. Inmates with life sentences arising from separate incidents would not be eligible for parole.
The legislation also makes the following parole board changes:
- Gives the governor the ability to remove parole board members;
- Diversifies members on the discretionary parole appointment panel;
- Requires the parole board to complete a risk/needs assessment before granting a parole permit;
- Requires certification that parole board members have reviewed criminal records;
- Requires a voting record of board decisions;
- Increases notification requirements when violent felons have a parole hearing; and
- Requires eight hours of annual training for parole board members.
The bill reduces mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenses under the Controlled Substances Act, which will help alleviate prison overcrowding and save taxpayers money. Those serving a prison sentence under the Controlled Substances Act will now be allowed to participate in authorized vocational and educational programs.
The legislation also reduces school zone areas from 1,000 feet to 300 feet, which triggers enhanced mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses, and reforms DNA collection practices, alleviating a backlog in the crime labs and DNA database and assisting law enforcement and prosecutors.
Additionally, the bill includes two Good Samaritan provisions. One allows doctors to prescribe and dispense a potentially lifesaving drug normally administered for heroin and other opioid overdoses to abusers and family members for preventative purposes. The second allows a person to come forward in good faith to a medical professional or member of law enforcement on behalf of someone experiencing an overdose without fear of being prosecuted.
The bill now goes to the governor for his signature.