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.
Of course, we’ve been here before. In 1995, fifteen-year-old Eddie O’Brien committed a vicious murder — stabbing and slashing a Somerville mother 98 times — that enraged the state, and rightly so. Unfortunately, the reaction to the crime led to a regrettable change in the law. To this day, children as young as 14 who murder are automatically tried as adults. And Connecticut and Massachusetts are the only states that still sentence juvenile first-degree murderers to life without parole.
“While it’s important to keep the victim’s perspective in mind, I’m always concerned when laws are enacted in the wake of a high-profile case,” noted Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox said in an interview, adding that “bad laws” can result from such situations. Fox also objected to some of the overblown conclusions in a June Globe article headlined “Paroled Lifers Pose High Risk of New Crimes.” The article found that 34.3 percent of the 201 parolees it reviewed were sent back to prison. But Fox pointed out that more than half of them were returned for “technical violations” such as “associating with known gang members, smoking marijuana, or even missing scheduled appointments with a parole officer.”
So how can we keep our state safe and secure and save taxpayers money?
A start would be to listen to the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition, a local nonprofit group that seeks to get evidence-based practices committed to law. That would mean mandating comprehensive study and testing before instituting changes to our criminal justice system. That would also mean being “smart on crime,” says Ronald P. Corbett, the new commissioner of probation in Massachusetts. In a 2008 Criminology & Public Policy article, Corbett warned some of his colleagues about unresearched policy decisions: “If professionals in the field of health care gave equally scant attention to research,” he wrote, “they would likely run the risk of malpractice and their patients surely would suffer.”
We can also pay attention to what’s happened in other states. Returning to the Pennsylvania example from earlier, two police officers in that state were killed in 2008 by three men on parole, all originally convicted for violent crimes. Pennsylvania is hardly known as soft on crime — its prison population at the time was the fastest-growing in the country. In the immediate aftermath of the killings, just as in our state, the governor temporarily froze some parole hearings. However, unlike what would later happen in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania set up an independent review, tasking John Goldkamp, the criminal justice department chair at Temple University, to investigate the matter.
Goldkamp’s reports, some done quickly but some taking more than a year, found 58 parole issues that needed improvement. His reports paved the way for the state to create stricter supervision and more support for parolees, develop a new parole classification system, and implement a tool to measure parolees’ dangerousness. What the state did not do was pass a bill that eliminated the possibility of parole, or increase violent-offender sentencing for second and third strikes.