The Massachusetts Legislature is Ignorant And Depraved

By now, Massachusetts lawmakers are back in their home districts, ramping up their re-election campaigns and flashing sweet baloney grins at fairs and forums. In their cheeseball bids, a sick majority of them will tout their unflinching support for the newly passed repeat offender bill – better known as “three-strikes,” or “Melissa's Law” after murder victim Melissa Gosule – which will jail certain criminals for life with no chance of parole. These politicians will tell constituents that more bogeymen will be banished to awful places, and that communities will be safer as a result. And no matter how sincere they sound, they'll ALL be lying.

I've been tracking this developing disaster for months. While similar “tough-on-crime” measures have been floated in past sessions, the most recent misguided sentencing proposal came to my attention in January, when black and Latino leaders began clamoring in opposition. At the time, there was a general sentiment that a “three-strikes” law could inevitably pass here, as an overwhelming number of lawmakers supported some version of the bill. Still there remained a slim chance that legislators might abandon their usual routine and respond to reason for a change.

Fast-forward six months to late-July, and the commonwealth's unique brand of “three-strikes” was approaching certain victory. With that in mind, this week I reported to Beacon Hill, where crime and punishment were among the contentious issues on deck as the two-year session wound down. I'm rarely surprised by State House shenanigans – this is, after all, the same building where speakers are sequentially indicted – but the circus that commenced on Monday was among the most depraved spectacles I've ever seen transpire there, right down to the former reps turned lobbyists on hand and bipartisan circle jerk at the expense of brown people.

In the Senate on Monday, Minority Leader Bruce Tarr – and by minority I mean Republican, since MASSACHUSETTS HAS NO BLACK SENATORS – brought more fireworks than are recommended for anyone who abuses that much hair product. Tarr's main beef was over Deval Patrick's comments that new public assistance reforms will be hard to enforce; but in his cute aggressive spurt, he also managed to lambaste the governor for prolonging the passage of Melissa's Bill. The performance bordered on convincing; surveying the sneers on his GOP fluffers, a sucker might have even thought that Tarr was serious about fighting evil.

Owly Images

Fleeing from that cheap parody of real outrage, I kicked over to the House chamber for what would be the final debate over Melissa's Bill before it got signed into law. Since no existing studies indicate that comparable initiatives have curbed violent crime, a part of me expected an ambitious lawmaker to unveil a favorable last-minute report on “three-strikes” – perhaps one that was conducted by the prison industrial complex. But such a forgery wasn't necessary, as fear of voters and a need for peer-approval had already paralyzed legislators long before Patrick returned the bill with an amendment to add judicial discretion.

While black legislators pleaded for logical consideration, their white counterparts zoned out and fiddled with their Blackberries. I can't speak for representatives who only came in to vote on the amendment, but those who were in the House the entire time, joking with their buddies, were decidedly unaffected by revelations that minorities are imprisoned at disproportionately high rates. Nor were they impacted by testimonies from lawmakers of color – who represent a considerably higher number of violent crime victims than do all the white legislators together – or by academic studies that are consistently critical of “three-strikes.”

Owly Images

I never expected to see more cowardice on Beacon Hill than three years ago, when House members returned Sal DiMasi to the speaker's chair despite his looming indictment. This week, however, set a new bar – from the sentimental sponsors of Melissa's Bill, to the cheerful Caucasians in the balcony. An extra-special shout-out goes to Gloucester representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, who proved herself to be the least-quotable proud ignoramus of all. “How would Melissa Gosule vote on this bill?” she asked. “I don't know, but I do know how I'll vote.” Now that's insightful.

At the end of so much rigmarole, 132 representatives rejected Patrick's sensible amendment, while a mere 23 voted in favor of it. Highlighting their own shortsightedness, “three-strikes” advocates even took to saluting themselves for trimming the list of offenses that could yield a life sentence – and for supporting the better parts of the bill, which will hopefully lead non-violent drug offenders toward rehabilitative pastures. The stonewall worked; under pressure, the governor gave “three-strikes” the nod about a day later, claiming to believe that lawmakers will consider further sentencing reforms in future sessions.

Prior to Patrick folding, there was a lot of talk about who would have shouldered blame if Melissa's Bill was defeated this week. In other words, the measure's advocates were identifying potential scapegoats in case chronic offenders lashed out in the future. Since all is well across the Bay State and that's no longer a concern, I have another question: Who will be held responsible when someone facing a third strike blasts his way out of a life sentence? How about when the new law results in no more than a burden on taxpayers, the Supreme Judicial Court, and the Massachusetts Department of Correction?

Overall, it wasn't a complete horror show on Beacon Hill this week. Despite “three-strikes” and a big swipe at immigrants, there was good news in the realms of disclosure, workplace fairness, and healthcare cost reform. Still none of that changes an underlying reality – that less than two percent of our state corrections budget is spent on job training and rehabilitation. That enormous threat remains – no matter what legislators claimed yesterday in their self-congratulatory press conference outside of the House chamber. It's okay, though, since voters don't care about facts, figures, or the inmates who will re-enter society. They care about Melissa.

As the shameless media gas chamber continues to fill, there's been virtually no chatter about the overcrowded prisons that produce murderers in Massachusetts. Instead, Melissa's father Les Gosule has been hailed as a hero, and given a platform to promote the unfounded fantasy that “something good is going to happen out of a horrible tragedy.” All this as lawmakers return to their districts and peddle the same fiction to Caucasian constituents. Hopefully it will make them all feel safer until someone who was raised in a cell block with no guidance decides to dump a clip rather than face life behind bars.

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