With potential consequences for an already overcrowded prison system, parole rates over the past seven months have dropped considerably from the previous year raising concerns about supervision and recidivism for prisoners released to the streets when their sentences expire.
Parole Board Chairman Joshua Wall said it would be shortsighted to judge the Massachusetts parole system based on statistics alone, but critics, including prisoner advocates and members of the Governor’s Council, worry that the shift could lead to other problems and public safety threats.
Parole rates have dropped, with the number of eligible inmates in state prison facilities earning parole shrinking from 58 percent in 2010 to 35 percent in 2011 through July, according to statistics provided by the Parole Board after the News Service inquired about lower prison parole rates this year.
According to officials, the board has held 703 state prison inmate hearings in 2011, granting parole in 35 percent of those cases. The board has also held 2,403 hearing for prisoners in county correctional facilities – typically those convicted of less serious crimes with shorter jail sentences. Of those considered for parole at the county level, 46 percent have won release compared with 64 percent in 2010.
“They’re way down and the prison population is way up so the concern is that the lack of parole is exacerbating an already overcrowded prison system,” said Leslie Walker, the executive director of Massachusetts Prisoners’ Legal Service.
In an interview with the News Service, Wall acknowledged the slowing parole rates, but rebutted the notion that a decline in parole releases was a reaction to the December murder of Woburn police officer John Maguire by paroled career felon Dominic Cinelli.
Wall is scheduled to appear before the Governor’s Council on Aug. 17 to answer questions about the direction of the Parole Board, and why board member John Bocon, who’s renomination was rejected in June by the council, continues to participate in parole hearings.
“There’s a legal standard we are obligated to follow and we can’t set aside that standard to satisfy a particular advocacy group,” Wall told the News Service. “Board members make each decision individually by focusing on the facts and the law, not a parole rate selected by an advocacy group. That would be irresponsible.”
Maguire’s murder the day after Christmas led to Gov. Deval Patrick dismissing five of the seven Parole Board members who heard Cinelli’s parole case, and replacing the chairman with Wall as he moved quickly to refashion the board.
Though Patrick has pledged a strong belief in parole as a component of the criminal justice system, some worry that the fallout from the Cinelli case led directly to the reduction in parole rates.
“It’s the fear factor,” Walker said. “No one wants to read about another crime committed by a parolee, but it’s throwing out the baby with the bath water.”
Wall, however, said the numbers show that prisoners eligible for parole are receiving “a fair and reasonable opportunity for parole,” and those who have “earned it” are being paroled.
“The board is not made up of extremists or ideologues on one side or the other. It is made up of criminal justice professionals who know what facts to look for and what legal standards to apply,” Wall said.
Gov. Patrick has filed legislation that would stiffen punishments and limit parole for habitual offenders, but also allow non-violent criminals, including drug offenders in both prisons and jails, to seek parole after serving half a maximum sentence. His legislation would reduce drug-free school zones from 1,000 to 100 feet, and aims to reduce recidivism rates by requiring supervised release for all state inmates.
With the Senate preparing to tackle parole and sentencing reforms, the issue could begin to move in the Legislature this fall.
“The governor is committed to parole. The parole board members are committed to parole. No one is committed to a particular statistic,” Wall said.
Governor’s Councilor Terrence Kennedy said he was “concerned” by the diminished parole rates because they lead to fewer prisoners gaining access to post-release supervision and services that can reduce recidivism.
“I think part of what’s happening is the natural reaction and concern about what happened in the Cinelli case. It’s a natural backlash that everyone has tightened up,” said Kennedy, a defense attorney and first-term Democrat. He added that overall he felt the new parole board was following through on its mandate to be more careful, particularly with considering parole for those serving a life sentence.
No inmates serving a life sentence have been paroled in 2011.
According to a report published by the Department of Correction in June, the number of inmates being released to the street without supervision at the end of their sentences increased to 79 percent of total releases in the first quarter, from 68 percent in the fourth quarter of 2010.
The drop in paroled inmates led to an overall 22 percent decrease in total prisoners released to the street, either through parole or the expiration of a sentence, between the fourth quarter of 2010 and the first quarter of 2011, including a 39 percent drop for female prisoners and a 52 percent decline for males.
The decline that resulted in 153 fewer prisoners released in the first quarter of 2011 compared to the fourth quarter of 2010, has the potential to impact prison populations over time, and played a role in the number prisoners being released without any type of supervision increasing to 49 percent in first quarter of 2011, up from 39 percent over the last three months of 2010.
“Without a parole officer or some supervision, they’re an accident waiting to happen and those numbers jumped out at me as scary,” Walker said.
Governor’s Councilor Jennie Caissie, a first-term Republican, said she was “not alarmed” by the trend toward fewer parole releases, arguing that parole is not an exact science at that each case must be treated individually.
“I think it’s important to let the individual members of the Parole Board make the call. I don’t think parole should be a matter of statistics when you’re talking about public safety,” Caissie said.
“Obviously overcrowding is an issue and we want people to finish with some rehabilitation, but you put them on a scale, public safety will have to rise to the top,” she added.
This program aired on August 9, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.