Three strikes bill clears 1st hurdle

The House Criminal Justice Committee agreed yesterday to support HB 645, a bill to give offenders two chances on parole before they face an extra seven to 14 years as part of any third imprisonment. That was the statute until 2003, when lawmakers passed HB 277. They were unaware it might impose the enhanced penalty on someone serving two consecutive felony sentences in a single imprisonment. 

There is no data on the number of inmates now serving extra time because of HB 277. But if that figure were 100 prisoners, for example, the larger prison census could eventually cost the state between $25 million and $50 million, at $35,000 per year per person. Probably few of the affected inmates have reached their enhancement terms yet. But they will. Thanks to HB 277, some will become expensive invalids in prison and never make parole.

The law prior to 2003 imposed the enhancement on someone who committed another felony after two previous and separate imprisonments. HB 277 changed that language to two previous “sentences,” which could run consecutively in a single prison bid.

Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice mistakenly told lawmakers in 2003 that HB 277 would not change the lengths of sentences. This was her testimony, according to the verbatim Senate Judiciary transcript:

“(HB 277) doesn’t change the substance of the law in any respect. The sentences are the same...It simply makes clear whether it can be the jury or the judge that meets the factors to impose an extended term.”

The committee this year wanted Rice to confirm the apparent oversight in 2003 and say whether HB 645 restores the legislative intent to keep sentences the same.

“My understanding (regarding 2003) is that she testified it was a housekeeping measure,” said Rep. Renny Cushing, the vice chair of House Criminal Justice.

Committee Chairperson Laura Pantelakos summarized the feelings of the group about HB 645. “We agree we should change the law unless the AG tells us something different,” she said.

The committee deferred formal vote on the retained bill until Rice gives her opinion. HB 645 could appear on the House floor calendar as early as January.

By Chris Dornin, founder, CCJR