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.
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.