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.

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.

  • 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.