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 — For advocates of prisoners' rights in Massachusetts, the past few weeks have been among the most challenging of their careers.
They have been struggling to get their message heard above the outcry from the public and state lawmakers, who are demanding tighter parole restrictions after Woburn Police Officer John Maguire was shot dead on Dec. 26, 2010, allegedly by Domenic Cinelli, a career criminal released on parole despite three life sentences.
The reaction has been knee-jerk, says Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services in Boston, and that's always dangerous. "This incident is the Willie Horton of this decade, if not the beginning of this millennium," she said. "And it did not need to be so."
WBUR obtained letters written by employers of inmates who were pulled out of pre-release work programs and returned to medium-security prisons following Officer John Maguire's death.
In 1997, Horton, a convicted murderer, robbed a gas station and raped a woman while out on furlough. The incident is widely seen as having sunk then-Gov. Michael Dukakis' presidential ambitions.
So Walker and other prisoners' rights advocates are not underestimating the power of a tragedy in shaping public opinion.
We sat down recently with Walker and Patricia Garin, a Boston defense lawyer who runs a clinic at Northeastern University Law School in which law students act as counsel for lifers seeking parole.
Garin's students represented Cinelli at his parole hearing in 2008. She insists Officer Maguire's death was not the fault of a dysfunctional parole system.
"Domenic Cinnelli was charged with crimes, which if the prosecutors at the time wanted to they could have kept him in prison for the rest of his life," she said. "They chose not to and they chose to make him parole eligible. And that's the sentence he received and a judge signed off on.
"We don't need new laws to incarcerate more people. We have the laws on the books right now that can be used to deal with people who are habitual offenders."
In the weeks since Maguire's death, state lawmakers have backed three different bills that would tighten up parole laws to one degree or another. Walker and Garin both say they are extremely concerned by the way politicians are addressing the issue.
"They are responding without thinking. They are looking at the evidence as to what works and what doesn't," Garin said. "They are trying to appeal to the public's sense of fear and the hysteria that surrounds a tragedy like this."
"They are trying to appeal to the public’s sense of fear and the hysteria that surrounds a tragedy like this."Patricia Garin, defense attorney
The result, Garin says, is that the public doesn't pay attention to all the positive stories that come out of the parole system — stories that she sees close up through the dozens of lifers who she and her students have represented each year for the past 17 years.
"They are doing exceptionally well," she said. "They are working, they are raising families, they are paying taxes. Some of them have gone and received masters degrees, some of them are running community programs, helping people."
Both Garin and Walker have been meeting with a couple groups of parolees over the past few weeks. One group is four men who were out on work-release programs awaiting parole — with jobs in the community, but spending their nights in prison — and who have since been pulled back into medium-security facilities. Those men have no idea what the future now holds for them, Walker said.
The second group, they say, is made up of people out on parole for 15 or 20 years, but who are scared that they too will get swept up amid all the changes and the chaos surrounding the system.
"We actually asked 10 people who are out on parole if they would speak with you about how terrific their lives have been and how well they've been doing and talk about being on parole," Garin said, "and every single one of them was too afraid to speak publicly."
Garin and Walker say they are trying to stay optimistic about the future, but it's not easy.
"I don't want to admit to pessimism because that sounds like we're feeling defeated and we're not," Garin said. "We're hoping that we can educate politicians to understand what they're doing."
On Thursday, we heard from the other side — a victims' advocate who has been fighting to pass stricter parole laws since his daughter's murder in 1999.
This program aired on February 11, 2011.