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.

On the surface, that may sound like a good idea. But we really don’t have to dig far to discover that this approach would spell big trouble for Massachusetts. How do we know that? Because it’s caused all kinds of problems for other states.

Let’s start with the fact that Massachusetts state prisons are already at 140 percent of capacity. So even with previous parole success, we have been dealing with overcrowding. Now we plan to give more people more time behind bars? Leslie Walker, executive director of the nonprofit Prisoners’ Legal Services, estimates that “lengthier incarceration for violent offenders alone” could wind up costing the state an extra $267 million per year. Why? Because in Massachusetts it costs $5,000 per year to support and supervise a parolee, while the tab comes to $46,000 a year to keep a state prisoner incarcerated.

It’s worth the extra cost to keep our streets safer, right? It certainly would be — if keeping people locked away rather than letting them out early on supervised parole actually resulted in safer streets. It turns out, though, that it doesn’t.

Research shows that 95 percent of all men and women who are incarcerated will eventually return to the community. So what’s the best way to send them back? Prisoners who serve their entire sentence are returned to the streets without supervision of any kind. Those let out on parole, however, get strong oversight and support, which helps them succeed. There will probably always be disturbing exceptions like Cinelli, but as a 2002 Boston Bar Association task force found, supervised parolees are statistically less likely to reoffend than those released without oversight.

U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Gertner summed the whole thing up this way in a Globe op-ed piece: “No parole is a ticket to recidivism.” And more recidivism makes Massachusetts less safe.

Now let’s take a look at California, a state that shows us the worst-case scenario of reacting too quickly and with poor policy after a tragedy — this time, the heartbreaking case of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, who in 1993 was kidnapped and murdered by a parolee with a long criminal record.

Five months after Klaas was killed, California passed its famous “three strikes and you’re out” law. Criminals who committed second felonies would now receive double the time of their first sentence, while third strikes would result in sentences of 25 years to life. What the state wanted was to reduce violent crime by incarcerating its most serious and violent criminals. What it got was a disaster.

The “strikes” that triggered the tough new sentences could be for any felony, which in some states includes not just violent crimes but also drug distribution or larceny of more than a certain amount. So imagine a guy serves 10 years for a first strike, gets out only to be caught stealing, and then goes back to prison for 20 years. It started to happen just that way in California and, before long, the state’s prisons became overcrowded and filled with disease, violence, and death. That, in turn, led to years of litigation that recently resulted in a “cruel and unusual punishment” finding by the U.S. Supreme Court. California was ordered to limit its state prisons to 110,000 inmates, which meant cutting the population by 33,000 over two years.

“This was a perfect example of not using data to help make a good decision,” Len Engel, managing associate for policy at the Crime and Justice Institute, said of California’s three-strikes law. The California state auditor’s office in 2009 estimated that three-strikers spent on average nine more years behind bars and cost the state an additional $19.2 billion.

  • 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.