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.
And because of its misguided reforms, California is facing still another potential correctional crisis that may well await Massachusetts if it decides to lock up prisoners for longer periods: an aging prison population. According to the Pew Center on the States, California’s correctional healthcare costs were $676 million in the fiscal year ending in 2001. By 2007, they had exploded to about $2.1 billion, an increase of 210 percent.
California shows us that locking up people for longer and longer is not the answer. But the proposed legislation in Massachusetts would do just that. The collective aim of the bills here is to keep people like Cinelli off the street. But as in California, they are too broad to ensure that only the truly dangerous will be denied early release.
In a report, Leslie Walker of Prisoners’ Legal Services points out that the governor’s two proposed House bills have some of the same three-strikes provisions that doomed California. Another of the proposed laws, Melissa’s Bill, has been kicking around for a while after being drafted in response to another tragedy, but has gained new attention since officer Maguire’s shooting. Among other provisions, this bill would totally remove parole for habitual offenders.
The most heavy-handed of the bunch in Massachusetts, though, is state Senator Bruce Tarr’s bill — which not only eliminates parole for habitual offenders, but also increases from 15 to 25 years the time that second-degree lifers — people who commit murder but without premeditation — must wait before being eligible for parole. Tarr’s proposed law, which might more accurately be named the “Build More Prisons” bill, would also: allow second-degree lifers to come before the parole board no more than once in a five-year period; require a two-thirds majority vote from the board to grant parole to a lifer rather than the current requirement of a simple majority; do away with the requirement that board members have at least a bachelor’s degree; and require that at least three of the seven members have five years of law enforcement experience within the previous 10 years.
As a 2004 Association of Paroling Authorities International study shows, requiring three members to have a law enforcement background is unusual. Of the 43 states that took part in the study (Massachusetts did not), 27 said they have some statutory requirements for sitting on the parole board. The vast majority of those states mandate that members represent a wide variety of fields such as psychology, education, sociology, criminology, psychiatry, social work, medicine, and law enforcement. And in law-and-order Arizona, “no two members can share the same career discipline.” Those kinds of rules keep the board from being stacked one way or the other.
Add it all up and the proposed initiatives in Massachusetts are regressive, outside the mainstream, and an embarrassment. As we contemplate the overhaul of our parole system, we are teetering on the precipice of policy disaster.