BOSTON — Despite continued calls for the justice system to impose longer prison time, more minimum mandatory sentences and tougher restrictions of getting parole, financial considerations may end up being more important than ideology in the debate over parole in Massachusetts. But it may take a little while longer to get to the bottom line.
At Wednesday’s confirmation hearing for Josh Wall, Gov. Deval Patrick’s choice to replace the Parole Board chairman he forced out last month, there was less talk about Wall than about Domenic Cinelli. He’s the prisoner the old Parole Board, all ousted now, released on parole back in 2009, which put Cinelli in a position to shoot and kill a Woburn police officer during an aborted jewelry store robbery in December 2010.
Scandal, outrage and proposals to get tougher on parole have followed that killing, during which Cinelli himself was shot to death. Members of the Governor’s Council spent copious amounts of time, during the five-and-a-half-hour hearing, to criticize the old board for its many failures.
To one of the long list of witnesses who praised Wall so highly, Mary Ellen Manning responded:
Here’s our problem. Mark Conrad and the rest of the Parole Board got sacked — even though there were many, many people who came to testify for them saying they had good judgment, that they were compassionate people, that they were dedicated public servants, that they understood criminal behavior, that they understood mental illness…
We’re put in the same situation now. Put yourself in my shoes and tell me why I should risk my reputation on attorney Wall, when the same remarks were made about the prior members of the Parole Board who all got canned.
Is setting the bar higher for Parole Board nominees and for their decisions going to mean far fewer prisoners getting parole?
That’s what defense attorney Patricia Garin worries. She runs a Northeastern University law clinic that counsels parole applicants and was at the hearing to oppose Wall’s nomination, saying the board needs more than law enforcement people, who are inclined to oppose parole almost reflexively.
But here’s what might prove a more persuasive argument. The cost of putting more people in prison and keeping them there longer is staggering.
Here in Massachusetts, it costs $47,000 a year to house one person in the state prison system. The latest numbers show that the inmate population is 150 percent over capacity, and the latest counts for county jails show some at over 200 percent of capacity. In Bristol County, the jail population is 361 percent over capacity.
The trend line of overcrowding and court rulings to relieve overcrowding points to the need to build more prisons or release more prisoners. California is facing an order to release 40,000 prisoners because of overcrowding.
Across the country, state governments now spend some $50 billion every year on prison budgets. Put that atop the need to cut huge deficits in state government and suddenly we’re looking at the likes of Newt Gingrich calling for prison reforms to cut prison costs.
In the end, the issue of crime and punishment may follow the cues of money and not ideology.
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