Calling out 'three strikes'

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  January 5, 2012


On December 26, 2010, career degenerate Dominic Cinelli murdered Woburn police officer John Maguire while attempting to rob a Kohl's department store. The heinous action was in character for Cinelli, who was also killed in the shootout. What especially enraged many was that Cinelli was a repeat offender out on parole. In 1985, while in violation of a prison furlough, Cinelli shot a security guard during a botched jewelry-store heist in Downtown Crossing.

Cinelli, who had been serving three concurrent life sentences, was freed in 2009 by a six-member parole board that was chaired at the time by Mark Conrad, a former campaign worker and driver for the governor. Two other Patrick appointees were also on the board, which voted unanimously to parole Cinelli despite his history of violent drug-related offenses.

Public hysteria ensued, and the state's criminal-justice system came under harsh scrutiny. As radio talkers reeled, officials summoned a legislative chorus to condemn repeat offenders. Patrick tightened the parole pipeline. In their turn, the Senate tacked a "three strikes" section onto the end of an elaborate 25-page bill that also addressed a range of other criminal-justice issues, including drug and mental-health treatment for prisoners, post-release supervision, and reductions in mandatory minimum sentencing rules.

After months on the back burner, on November 15 the comprehensive "Act relative to habitual offenders, sentencing and improving law enforcement tools" passed the Senate unanimously. Eleven days later, the House presented its own version of the bill, which stripped every last progressive measure and left in only the "three strikes" element. Ignoring loud disapproval from a handful of left-leaning lawmakers, including all members of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus (MBLLC), the House overwhelmingly passed their bill by a vote of 142-12, as friends and family members of Maguire, who was slain nearly a year earlier, waved and smiled from the gallery.

"There's no reason to rush this bill," says State Representative Carlos Henriquez, a member of the MBLLC whose district includes high-crime sections of Dorchester. Henriquez supports much of the original Senate bill — particularly reform of sentencing mandates — but says the threat of "three strikes" supersedes all that for the time being, and is working to at least stall the legislative process. "The way it was done put a lot of us in a bad situation," says Henriquez. "And for those of us who represent communities of color, they put us in a horrible position."


Opponents of "three strikes" in Massachusetts say that they need to swing for the bleachers to defer imminent passage. "It's going to take a lot of work to get legislators to undo what they've already done," says Leslie Walker of Prisoners Legal Services. Legendary criminal defense attorney Max Stern sees an even more daunting scenario: "It's going to take a miracle to stop this in its tracks."

In their campaign, activists are informing the public and state officials of the proven ineffectiveness and financial burden of "three strikes" elsewhere. One California study by the Justice Policy Institute concluded that counties using "Three Strikes most frequently had no better declines in crime than those that used the law more sparingly." Elsewhere, the trend has skewed away from these measures; Arizona passed a comparable law six years ago, but before that the last states to embrace "three strikes" did so in 1996.

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Related: A clean mind and dirty hands, Conducting tests on Maine Republicans, Cleaning up after DiMasi, More more >
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