Why Massachusetts’ Parole System Requires Reform

Two years ago, Deval Patrick set out to save our parole system. But he’s only made it worse.

massachusetts needs parole reform

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In 2011, Governor Patrick made a mistake.

It was just after a Woburn police officer named John Maguire had been shot and killed during an attempted robbery. The murderer was Dominic Cinelli, a career criminal out on parole after having served time for shooting a security guard. The news that Cinelli had been out on early release when he shot Maguire set off a firestorm. The governor, vowing that Maguire’s death would not be in vain, pledged reforms to the state’s paroling policies.

Patrick went into crackdown mode, engineering the resignations of five of the seven parole-board members. Then he handpicked new board members and lined up the former prosecutor Josh Wall as chair. The message was clear: We need to avoid mistakes at all costs—even if it means all but shutting the door on parole.

Clearly, something had gone wrong in the Cinelli case. But Patrick reacted before the best national reforms could even be studied. Parole is by its nature imperfect: No matter how many fixes are implemented, nobody will ever be able to predict with certainty which prisoners will commit new crimes if released early. Knowing that, the governor should have urged us to enact reform both cautiously and wisely. Because guess what? A drop in parole numbers actually makes us less safe.

Shortly after the governor’s overhaul, we warned readers about this problem [“Patrick’s Folly,” August 2011], explaining that parole makes both economic and public-safety sense. Unfortunately, that warning went unheeded, and now we have real trouble. While 891 state prisoners were released on parole in 2010, only 395 were let go in 2011. In the first nine months of 2012, the number was 424, according to a recent white paper authored by the advocacy group Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts and the defense attorney Patricia Garin.


Parole works. Time and again, studies have proven that it reduces recidivism—that is, released offenders committing another crime. Paroled or not, 95 percent of sentenced prisoners will eventually return to our communities, so helping transform them into good citizens is crucial. When inmates serve their full sentences without parole, they exit prison gates without having to report to anyone. Parole, on the other hand, provides an opportunity for the type of supervision and support—with education, jobs, and programs like drug counseling—that can help them become productive members of society.

Parole also prevents overcrowded prisons. We have approximately 22,600 state and county prisoners in Massachusetts, housed in facilities operating, on average, at more than 130 percent capacity. That type of situation causes more prisoner neglect, as well as more violence inside and, eventually, crime outside.

Parole rates were declining in Massachusetts even before 2010, which means we have lots of data about what happens when they do. A study this year, authored by the think tank MassINC and the nonprofit Community Resources for Justice, found that since 1990, policies that have decreased parole in Massachusetts have increased the length of prison stays by a third. According to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, parole’s price tag is $5,000 per person annually, compared with $45,500 for incarceration. Keeping people in prison, MassINC reports, now costs $150 million more per year than it did in 1990.

The best case for parole actually comes from those who have committed some of the worst crimes. According to a 2009 study by the Michigan-based Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, parolees originally convicted of homicide reoffended the least of all groups of ex-prisoners. Of 2,558 homicide parolees in that state, only 2.7 percent were returned to prison for any new crime, and only 0.5 percent were returned for another homicide. Other states have observed similar trends. A California report conducted in 2006 to 2007 showed that 51.5 percent of non-lifers on parole received new convictions, whereas only 4.8 percent of lifers did. In New York, just 2.6 percent of 1,480 murderers paroled from 1986 to 2006 were returned to prison for committing new crimes.