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.