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.

It would be smart to design our parole policy on outcome-based data like that. But Governor Patrick’s new board has shown a tendency to do not what’s smart but what’s politically expedient. State prisons currently hold 901 lifers convicted of second-degree murder, who by statute are eligible for parole after serving at least 15 years. According to the Department of Correction, 630 lifers will be eligible for parole within the next five years, but their prospects for release are shrinking. In 2010, the board granted parole to lifers 33.1 percent of the time; in 2012, 19.3 percent of the time; and as of May 25, 2013, only 14.3 percent of the time.

Josh Wall, the parole-board chairman, does not seem to be concerned with the decline. When he was hired in the aftermath of the Cinelli case, he told me, he needed to respond to a grave public safety concern. So he devoted himself to designing a system that would teach parole-board members how to make parole decisions. How criteria for decisions have changed under his leadership, however, he won’t say.

Clearly, though, more parolees are being sent back to prison under Wall. According to a study that he conducted in 2011, ninety-three of 186 paroled lifers wound up returning to custody between 2006 and 2010, which he called unacceptably high. When asked for his study’s data on exactly what the arrests were for and who had been convicted, however, Wall supplied only a summary. It stated that 46 parolees were returned to custody after being involved with or accused of a violent or serious crime. These were not necessarily convictions, though, and for the other 47 parolees, it’s difficult to tell the level of their infraction.

Studies have demonstrated that enforcing graduated sanctions if parolees violate their terms works better than returning them to prison. That’s why many states, among them Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, are opting for the type of system in which missing a meeting with a parole officer, for example, might result in community service, not a return to prison.

Obviously, we want the truly dangerous to stay behind bars. But sending parolees back to prison for noncriminal infractions often backfires, according to the attorney Patricia Garin, who coauthored the white paper and supervises the Prisoners Assistance Project at the Northeastern University School of Law, which trains students to represent lifers at parole hearings. “The vast majority of people who are returned to custody for alleged parole violations are being returned for technical violations,” she said. “These are violations that do not involve new arrests for criminal behavior.”

By its actions, the board is giving prisoners less incentive for good behavior. Timely decisions after parole hearings can be one helpful inducement, a former parole-board member told me—a notion that’s been echoed by the National Institute of Corrections. One of the trademarks of the Wall board, however, has been slow decision-making. Wall admits there have been delays, which he says are due to the backlog of 45 cases from the former board. Members of that board had voted on those cases but had not yet written them up at the time of their ouster.

Though Wall expects the board to catch up this year, that’s not much consolation to the 12 lifers who filed for parole in 2011 and who, as of April 2013, had been waiting at least 19 months for decisions. In 2010, a decision from the parole board took an average of only 1.4 months. In the first five months of this year, that number was 10.4 months. Thirty-five of the 135 inmates who had a hearing in 2012 were still waiting for their decision at the end of this past May.


The calls for change in Massachusetts are growing louder. Both MassINC and Prisoners’ Legal Services have recently urged the state to make more timely decisions, and to move to a model with supervised release and graduated sanctions. Meanwhile, Newton state Representative Ruth Balser is hoping to win support for a bill she’s filed seeking to balance the parole board by requiring that at least three members be from fields such as psychiatry, sociology, psychology, and social work. The bill also aims to address the problem of inordinate delays by adding manpower, increasing the number of members on the board from seven to nine.

But the fact is, meaningful reform to our parole policies will only happen if Governor Patrick makes it happen. Even if this issue is a political loser for him, as a lame duck he no longer needs to worry about that. Instead, he needs to make it a priority and guide us back on course. After his mistake in 2011, he owes us that.