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.

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.

  • 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 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.