In the aftermath of the fatal shooting on December 26, 2011 of a police officer by parolee Dominic Cinelli, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick essentially fired his parole board and its executive leadership, and suspended three parole supervision staff with intent to terminate them as well. Patrick declared that he and the public had lost confidence in parole and that change was needed. Subsequently, all parole releases from the state's prisons and county jails were suspended indefinitely.
This was a heavy-handed response to a tragic shooting, and it will have serious repercussions for the Massachusetts correctional system, and for public safety, for some time to come. While it is hard to argue that there are not things that need to be improved in the state's parole system, the approach taken is likely to make reform more difficult, and create additional problems.
As long as the moratorium is in place, inmate populations in the prisons and jails will go up—increasing costs and pressures on an already overcrowded system. The parole board will eventually be reconstituted with new members, but recruiting new members could be difficult, because candidates will know that their tenure could abruptly be cut short by another high-profile failure. For those courageous individuals who choose to accept an appointment to the board, there will be a learning curve during which time the board will be less than fully productive. This will delay paroles, further exacerbating crowding. The courts may become involved if inmates' consideration for parole is delayed too long.
It is reasonable to assume that even when the new board members get up to speed, they will be more conservative and risk-averse in their decision-making. This will no doubt reduce the rate at which inmates are released, further increasing the population pressures.
This more conservative approach to parole release will result in inmates serving more of their terms. For those inmates with a history of violence, it is likely to result in their “maxing out,” or being released after serving their full term with no supervision. Experience tells us that an inmate released directly to the community with no supervision, monitoring, or assistance poses a greater risk to community safety than one released on supervised parole.
The parole staff who supervise offenders in the community are also likely to modify their behavior as a result of the governor's actions. Parole agents will be more likely to charge parolees with violations of their supervision conditions and move to revoke parole. Given that the primary shortcoming of the parole supervision noted in the investigation was failure to make collateral contacts, I fully expect that field agents will keep their parolees on a very short leash and will be reluctant to take any risks that could later be criticized. This will result in increased numbers of parolees who are returned to prison or jail—again, further increasing population pressures.
These outcomes could have been avoided. When I review the information available about Cinelli, including the parole board's actions and the parole supervision provided, I can't help but think a different and more measured response would have been more effective at achieving the needed changes and reducing the collateral damages.
My first suggestion would be to avoid condemning the entire system based on one case. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 79 percent of Massachusetts parolees completed parole successfully in 2009, compared with a national rate of 51 per cent. Gov. Patrick was quoted as saying that “despite lapses, supervised parole is overwhelmingly successful in Massachusetts.” The current case was characterized by Gov. Patrick as a “terrible aberration.” This doesn't sound like a system in need of wholesale housecleaning.
We also need to look at the board's performance related to this case. Cinelli served more than 30 years in prison for a series of armed robberies. He was denied parole by the board at his first eligibility. When released, he was over 50 years old, an age at which most offenders are done with their life of crime. Much was made of the fact that the board was not using a risk-assessment instrument at the time when this case was heard, and this is a legitimate issue. Critics noted that Cinelli would have scored as high risk. The risk score, however does not automatically preclude an offender from being released. These risk assessments are not individual predictions; rather they are probability statements for groups of similar offenders. It is one piece of information that parole boards use.
Risk assessment also helps to inform the post-release supervision, higher risk offenders typically receive more intensive supervision. It is also useful to note that Cinelli was released in 2008 and committed the shooting in the waning days of December 2010. He was in the community under parole supervision for at least two years. Research and experience tells us that the vast majority of recidivism on parole or probation occurs in the first six to 12 months of supervision. By 18 to 24 months, the risk of re-offending has dropped significantly.
Most of the available information suggests that the release of this offender was appropriate, and that most signs pointed toward a successful period on parole. In a tragic example of how the parole process is less than perfect, Cinelli was caught during an armed robbery, shot a police officer, and was killed himself in the exchange of gunfire
When considering the Massachusetts experience with parole, it is important to remember that even the smartest and most experienced parole board, using the latest technology and having all of the relevant information before them, will release offenders who subsequently commit horrible crimes. Our ability to accurately predict human behavior is limited. Despite that essential, if troubling, fact, we must recognize that parole boards perform a critically important function that contributes to public safety and to the wise use of public resources. Our confidence in the parole system should not be eroded by what experience suggests is an aberration.
William D. Burrell is an independent corrections management consultant specializing in community corrections and evidence-based practices. From 2003 to 2007, he was a member of the faculty in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia. Prior to joining the Temple faculty, Bill served for nineteen years as chief of adult probation services for the New Jersey state court system. Bill is chairman of the Editorial Committee for Perspectives, the journal of the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) and serves on APPA's Board of Directors. He has consulted, and developed and delivered training for probation and parole agencies at the federal, state and county level.