Parolee Crimes: Could Massachusetts Have Done Better?


Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick announced this month his nominations to fill the four remaining vacancies on the Bay State's parole board. If confirmed, they will join Patrick's choice for parole board chairman: Joshua Wall, a former prosecutor.. Once these members are in place, the board can begin to rebuild from the rubble of the last few months.

For those who have not been following this issue, Gov. Patrick fired five board members, suspended several board staffers and imposed a moratorium on all parole releases in response to the December 26, 2010 murder of a police officer by parolee Dominic Cinelli,

His actions paralyzed the Massachusetts parole system and sent shock waves through parole boards and agencies across the country. While the commission of such a serious crime by a parolee certainly demands a quick response and thorough review of the actions of all involved, the public record suggests to me that the Massachusetts response was hasty, heavy handed and misdirected.

The eight-page investigative report issued on January 12, 2011 sums up the results of a cursory review of the case and the actions of those involved. I found nothing in the report that justified the governor's actions. While there were shortcomings, none rose to the level of a “smoking gun.”

Many critics of the parole board questioned why an inmate serving a “life” sentence would ever be released from prison at all, much less on parole. This criticism is misdirected. The parole board was administering the sentencing and parole structure established in law by the legislature and governors of Massachusetts. As Northeastern University's James Alan Fox wrote in January, the Massachusetts sentencing law specifically assigns to the parole board the responsibility for determining when to release certain life sentenced prisoners.

While “life” sentences that can be satisfied in just 15 years seem a bit incongruous to me, that is a matter for the legislature to address. If you don't want life-sentenced offenders to get out of prison, change the sentencing law. Don't fire the parole board for following the laws you now decide that don't like.

Re-instituting the parole release process in this environment will be problematic. The underlying structure set by statute has not fundamentally changed, so parole board members may well find themselves in the same position in the future – being blamed for making decisions that, while they follow the law, result in the commission of a serious crime by a parolee.

As former Kansas Secretary of Corrections Roger Werholz has often said, it is a statistical certainty that someone released from prison on parole will do something horrible. The parole system should be structured and operated in such a way as to reduce the likelihood of that happening, and should be judged on its overall performance, not a single high-profile incident.

The four brave individuals who were selected from among 100 applicants to be nominated to the Massachusetts parole board have a tough job ahead of them. They have to learn the complexities of the parole process, get acclimated to an agency in crisis and develop working relationships with their fellow board members and staff.

This is a difficult job under the best of circumstances.

The four nominees and the new board chairman, Joshua Wall, have been criticized as lacking the background for the positions. Two are former prosecutors (one served as the board's general counsel); one is a forensic psychologist; another is a victim advocate and the last is a former federal probation chief. This seems a fair representation of skills and experiences for parole board members.

The two remaining board members are also former prosecutors. This would seem to have the potential for a pro-law enforcement bias on the board with majority of members having a prosecutorial background. It is critical to remember that parole release decision-making is about assessing risk of re-offending and of crafting parole release plans that work to reduce risk once the inmate is released. These are skills not taught in law school nor learned in most legal jobs.

While some may say that it is easy to criticize the handling of the Massachusetts parole crisis, a recent example from Pennsylvania provides an alternative approach. In contrast to the Massachusetts case, the Pennsylvania situation was handled with deliberate speed, a reasoned response and appropriately focused investigation.

In September 2008, then Gov. Edward Rendel imposed a moratorium on parole releases in response the second killing that year of a Philadelphia police officer by a parolee. Rendel immediately commissioned an independent investigation by respected criminal justice professor John Goldkamp of Temple University. (Full disclosure: I was a consultant to that investigation and continue to work with the Pennsylvania board.)

After initial reviews of the parole process by Goldkamp and his team, parole was restored for non-violent offenders in October 2008 and then for violent offenders, albeit under new guidelines in December 2008. Goldkamp continued his investigation for 18 months and issued a 106 page report. The report found that the parole process and its administration by the board and staff was sound, and consistent with contemporary standards and best practices in the field. Recommendations were made for improvement, many of which have been implemented and others are in process.

The police officer shootings, the subsequent moratorium and the independent investigation took a toll on the Pennsylvania board. The parole rate dropped and prison population climbed. While the rate has largely returned to pre-moratorium levels, the stress on all aspects of the corrections and parole system is undeniable.

While it is impossible to predict the future for Massachusetts parole, I fear that it will be a long time before parole rates for the state prisons and county jails return to “normal”. All of the board members will know that each of their votes will be scrutinized. Should something go wrong and a parolee commits a heinous crime, they know who will be blamed. This cannot do anything but make them extremely risk-averse. The result will be increased pressure on correctional facilities and staff, increased costs—-and it will keep otherwise good parole candidates behind bars.

The lesson to be learned from these two states is that while there must be a swift response to parolee crimes, it can be done in a way that strengthens the parole system, rather than eviscerating it and making a tough job even harder to do.

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.

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