Patrick’s Folly

Last December, a brave police officer was killed by a career criminal out on parole. A massive public outcry followed: Fix the System! Some states respond to these situations by launching thorough investigations. Others start passing poorly researched laws—and pay the price for years to come. Too bad our governor is leading us down the wrong path.

patrick's folly

Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters/Landov

In what looks like a converted warehouse in Natick, seven men and women sit behind a long table. In front of them, in leg irons and a waist chain, is a prisoner in blues. He’s here to convince them that, after 15 years, he’s no longer the man who stabbed someone to death in a drug fight. He wants them to know that he’s unlikely to commit another crime and is not a danger to society, that he’s a good bet for parole.

Rows of chairs are set up facing the panel, like at a wedding. The man’s brother has come from Puerto Rico. His sister sits quietly crying. An assistant district attorney in a starched suit on the other side of the aisle chats with lawyers. The man barely reaches the microphone. He was young and angry, he says. He apologizes to the victim’s family and asks God for mercy. The panelists stare at him. Some ruffle papers. There’s an occasional yawn. They’ve heard this before.

[sidebar]At first glance, this scene seems like business as usual. But dig a little deeper and what you’ll find is a chilling and wrong-headed new approach to parole. In Massachusetts, these hearings have traditionally been evenhanded assessments of a prisoner’s potential for success in the community. But under the leadership of the board’s new chairman, longtime prosecutor Josh Wall, they have recently come to seem like trials with the prosecutor at the helm. Wall has been on the job just seven months — he took over amid fallout from the tragic shooting of a police officer in December by a convict who was out on early release — and already parole rates at state prisons and houses of correction have plummeted. The message is coming through loud and clear: There will be no more parole mishaps in Massachusetts.

In an article this summer in the Boston Bar Journal, defense lawyer Patricia Garin found that between January 14 and May 10, the parole rate at Massachusetts state prisons was just 31 percent, down from 66 percent in 2009. During that same span, parole approvals at houses of correction dropped to 40 percent, down from 68 percent in 2009.

So what’s wrong with that, you ask? Wall insisted in an interview that the new rate “shows that people have a fair and meaningful opportunity for parole.” And anyway, didn’t the fact that Domenic Cinelli, a career criminal out on parole, shot officer John Maguire to death during a burglary attempt at a Kohl’s department store in Woburn prove beyond a reasonable doubt that our system was broken? To read the papers or listen to our politicians after the shooting, you’d certainly have thought so. Governor Deval Patrick, in fact, made a series of sweeping reforms to the Massachusetts parole system following Maguire’s death, including installing Wall as the head of the parole board. But here’s the thing: All those hastily implemented “improvements” could wind up making our state less safe, cost us billions, and potentially set us up for significant legal challenges. We know this because that’s exactly what has happened to other states that have allowed passion rather than reason to dictate changes to their parole policies.

  • David

    I commend the author for saying some courageous things. In other contexts we accept that a policy decision carries some risk to lives and health. We try to minimize that risk but accept that the ris

  • Lyn

    We should know by now that knee jerk reactions don’t help. This is a carefully researched and level headed article that sets up the context carefully. When we rush to judgement, we usually rush in the wrong direction. There are too many lives at stake: potential victims of violent crime, people who work in overburdened, prisons where there is little hope left, and individuals whose futures will be lost because of overzealous individuals who act without thinking. In this case, I mean us: the folks who pass the laws that cause us to lose in the long AND short run. We have seen the evidence across the country. We can’t continually do the same thing and expect different results. Let’s work on the causes of the problems. Let’s, after all, be fair. It’s only right.

  • mike

    “The investigation uncovered some disturbing mistakes, such as poor parole supervision for Cinelli.” Really? How was it poor? What was the disturbing mistake? The PO did not call a treatment provider?

  • Jean

    Mike –To read the report from the governor’s office is to see the “disturbing” mistakes. Check it out for yourself at http://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/26173/cinelli.pdf. Supervision and sup

  • Donna

    The DOC has a huge responsibility here! While the Dominic Cinelli’s of the world are incarcerated for some 20-30 years do they have access to education, rehab, therapy? Or is it the “stick em in a cage, poke sticks at him and see how he comes out mentality” – The DOC is not doing their job or properly preparing these inmates for life on the street. This is BIG business and job security for the DOC. Increasing recidivism rate guarantees and secures the jobs of so many employees of the DOC – They have no incentive to ensure that inmates are rehabilitated upon release from prison. That makes it so easy to blame a parole board. I also commend this author. People need to know that there are several inmates who are prepared to re-enter society, despite the DOC. Dept of CORRECTION.. I beg to differ. Google “The Catastrophic Failure of Corrections” by John Feroli, Old Colony prison

  • sher

    An enlightening article that validates society’s understandable concerns and fears, yet digs deeper to look at more effective ways to deal with those concerns. We should indeed learn from the way PA has overhauled their system by developing better criteria for parole, more support and stricter supervision of parolees, as well as a parole board composed of people with diverse fields of expertise. We need to see those in jail as ‘people’ and not just as ‘prisoners’ and to try to understand where the system went wrong so that they ended up in jail in the first place. An even broader vision would be to try to offer needed services sooner to prevent individuals from ending up in the Correctional System at all.

  • Jared

    I liked the evidence you came up with. It actually pursuaded me on the subject, although I did not have a side on the matter at the time.

  • ricksmiFF

    Deval Patrick expressed himself as a timid weak leader who kowtows to mob pressure. He did not at once stop to think that the Cinelli episode was a fluke in a system that otherwise showed improvement in successful parolee completions! he was the only governor to
    allow that drivers ticketed must PAY to appeal tickets,tickets sometimes issued by mean spirited cops.