Politician after posturing politician in Massachusetts is questioning how it is possible that a prisoner serving a life sentence can be paroled. The answer is simple, says criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University, writing in the Boston Globe: “That is the law, one that many of these politicians helped to craft.” First degree murder in Massachusetts carries an automatic life sentence without the possibility of parole for offenders as young as 14. Others receiving life sentences, including second degree murderers and certain repeat felons, are eligible for parole consideration after a prescribed period of years. Most do not get released on their first parole bid, and many remain incarcerated through several failed parole hearings.
Many observers misunderstand the meaning of life sentences, Fox says, adding that perhaps they wouldn't be so confused and dismayed if parole-eligible life sentences were repackaged as, for example, “15 years to life.” In many situations, trial judges have no discretion in sentencing defendants, and it then becomes the job of the parole board to tailor punishments at the back end. Before concluding that the parole board must go because it released an apparent cop killer, we should examine the entirety of their decisions, Fox maintains. “The performance of the Parole Board should be assessed on more than this one case, however awful the consequences were,” he says.