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EDITORIAL

Curb parole for violent crime, but rethink drug sentencing

October 19, 2011

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THE STATE Senate is primed to pass legislation that would tighten parole eligibility for repeat violent offenders. But lawmakers need to be both tough and smart when considering a crime bill. And that will require an act of political courage - the elimination of the state’s mandatory minimum drug sentences for nonviolent offenders, thereby freeing up prison space for violent criminals.

The public is outraged when a paroled offender commits a dreadful crime, such as the December murder of Woburn police officer John Maguire. It’s not just an emotional response. More than a third of the most serious offenders paroled in Massachusetts over the past five years went back to prison for committing new crimes or violating the terms of their release.

Senate leaders wisely want to prohibit parole eligibility for criminals convicted of three violent felonies as well as those sentenced to more than one life term. Currently, convicted felons are eligible for parole after serving half of their sentences, with the exception of first degree murder. The bill would be even stronger if it established mandatory post-release supervision by the Parole Board for inmates who serve their full sentences.

The overarching goal, however, should be for lawmakers to create a stronger, fairer, and more economical criminal justice system. And that will require a balanced approach that cracks down on violent offenders while taking a fresh look at nonviolent drug offenders who languish for 10 or 15 years in prison at taxpayer expense. A place to start is with Governor Patrick’s sentencing reform bill that seeks to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession and trafficking crimes except those involving firearms. Prisoners currently serving time for nonviolent drug crimes would, under the governor’s bill, be eligible for parole after serving half of their maximum terms.

The elimination of mandatory minimums does not amount to leniency. Judges would be free to give maximum prison terms to the most egregious offenders, and those who present the greatest risk to society. But it would ease the reflexive application of long sentences when judges do not believe they are warranted.

In the past, the Senate has supported work-release eligibility for drug criminals serving mandatory minimum sentences and other proposals that emphasize rehabilitation of nonviolent inmates. But the current Senate bill ignores the growing and costly problem of mandatory minimum sentences. It misses both the opportunity for inmates to recover their lives and for taxpayers to recover the roughly $7,500 difference between keeping an inmate in prison or supervising him on the outside.