The Massachusetts parole system has come under scrutiny after a Woburn police officer was shot dead in December 2010, allegedly by a career criminal. WBUR is interviewing people affected, including advocates for victims and prisoners. What follows is one perspective on the issue.
BOSTON — The shooting death of Woburn Police Officer John Maguire back in December quickly turned political when it was learned the state's Parole Board had released the alleged shooter, Dominic Cinelli, despite his long and violent criminal history and three life sentences.
Last month, five board members resigned and on Wednesday, amidst intense scrutiny, Gov. Deval Patrick's nomination to chair the new Parole Board faced the Governor's Council for a confirmation hearing. Councilor Chris Iannella expressed some skepticism about the choice, Josh Wall.
"I'm worried about [the] fact that a prosecutor for 25 years — and I'm not advocating, by the way, for people to get out of prison and all that — but is he gonna give these folks a fair shake?" Iannella said. "I'm worried he's gonna say 'Can you believe it, that judge, he's gonna give five years. He shoulda got 10.' And he's gonna retry the case, and that's not the job of the Parole Board."
The Governor's Council could vote on Wall's nomination next week. In the meantime, three separate bills have been filed on Beacon Hill that aim to tighten the parole system in Massachusetts, including a proposal by Patrick and a bipartisan Senate bill sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr.
All of this greatly worries defense lawyers and criminal justice advocates in the state. Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services in Boston, said the legislation is a knee-jerk reaction by politicians tapping into public fear and hysteria.
"Every time you are in a CVS or a grocery store or on the subway, you are standing next to someone that was in prison. People reintegrate — they are part of us, they walk among us," Walker said.
But from the perspective of victims' rights advocates, there comes a point when a person should no longer have that chance.
Les Gosule is the man behind Melissa's Bill, the strictest of the three parole bills on Beacon Hill, with a "three strikes and you're out" approach to criminal justice.
Gosule has been fighting for more than a decade to get Melissa's Bill out of committee, and this year it looks like he may finally have his way. But for him, the renewed interest is incredibly bittersweet. Because from Gosule's perspective, Officer Maguire wouldn't have died if lawmakers had passed the bill years ago, after what happened to Gosule's daughter, then a 27-year-old school teacher.
"You had a first chance and a second chance as the criminal ... I don’t want to hear any excuses the third time."Les Gosule, victims' rights advocate
"In 1999, my daughter Melissa Gosule was bike riding down by the Cape Cod Canal," Gosule recalled. "Her car broke down in the parking lot near Friendly's. From there, this scumbag, Mike Gentile, came to help her get the car started. He couldn't. He offered to take her home — she never made it home. This animal stripped her, tied her to a tree, raped her and stabbed her. That's how she died."
The man who killed Gosule's daughter was a habitual offender with over 20 convictions. So while Gosule makes a living as the head of a public accounting firm in Milton, in the years since his daughter's death, he has spent much of his time at work in Boston lobbying state lawmakers. Despite the support of Middlesex County District Attorney Gerald Leone, the bill has never made it out of the Judiciary Committee.
Now, a group of 13 state lawmakers — 12 Republicans and one Democrat — are backing Gosule's plan and Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Eugene O'Flaherty has promised any parole-related bill he receives will get a "full review ... including a public hearing."
When we met with Gosule recently at his office in Milton, we asked him why he thinks he never got that hearing before.
"It's very sad for me to think that, OK, for 10 years, Melissa's Bill didn't really mean anything and we didn't really need any changes," he said. "But now an officer was murdered, now we need changes. So I'm really sad that we couldn't have done it sooner. I'm hopeful that we'll do it now."
Gosule said he worries that the governor's bill and the bipartisan Senate bill don't go far enough in tightening the state's parole system.
"The governor's bill, you're eligible for parole if you serve two-thirds a sentence," he said. "The current law in Massachusetts is that you're eligible for parole if you serve 50 percent of the time. So the $64 million question is: What is the big deal between 50 percent of the time and two-thirds of the time?"
He also has little sympathy for prisoners' rights advocates, who argue that changing the system and making it more punitive would clog up the courts, lead to overcrowding and could lead to bad behavior on the part of prisoners who might reason that, with no chance of parole, there's no point in trying to get out early through good behavior.
"Two words — public safety," Gosule said. "Who is our primary responsibility? Our primary responsibility is to the citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to protect them.
"Overcrowding, that's easy. Take people who are there on drug offenses or less crimes and let them out. It's a no-brainer. We've got people in there for small crimes.
"And the argument that prisoners are going to feel that there is no hope for them, well, you know what, we're talking about the habitual offender — keep that in mind," Gosule said. "You had a first chance and a second chance as the criminal to become a good person, you didn't succeed the first time, you didn't succeed the second time, I don't want to hear any excuses the third time."
Gosule said all he wants is for his bill to finally be voted out of the Judicial Committee and heard on the floor before the full House and Senate. He's hopeful that 2011 will finally be his year.
"Clearly if no bill takes place this year, then there never will be a bill," he said. "It's either this year or no year because the energy is there, the interest is there — I think it's this year or it's never going to come."
On Friday, we heard from the other side — prisoners' rights advocates who worry that the outrage surrounding the state's parole system is threatening the future of thousands of men and women who they say deserve a second chance.
This program aired on February 10, 2011.