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Probation and parole

Parole failure - Glass 1/3 empty or 2/3 full?

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment June 19, 2011 01:00 PM

The Boston Globe analysis of Massachusetts recidivism data associated with paroled lifers will undoubtedly raise lots of eyebrows. It also raises lots of questions. Without greater specificity about the 201 parolees --and especially those 30 who were charged with new offenses, it is much too tempting to embrace the frightening notion that paroled lifers are indeed at high risk for committing serious crimes once released back to the community.

There is no shortage of critics who argue that a life sentence should indeed mean life, and that murderers -- even second degree murderers -- should never walk free. We must not overlook, therefore, a few important points surrounding the Globe report.

Although, overall, one-third of paroled lifers were reincarcerated, more than half of the returnees involved revocations for technical violations of their parole conditions rather than for new crimes. Parole is indeed a privilege, not an absolute right, and the privilege can be terminated for reasons that fall far short of criminality, such as associating with known gang members, smoking marijuana, or even missing scheduled appointments with a parole officer.

Those who committed new offenses while on parole typically engaged in activity that was far less injurious than that which landed them in prison in the first place. Although the Globe story cites one case of a paroled murderer who killed again after his release, this is far more the exception than the rule. In fact, some of these new offenses are such that others who are not on parole would not be sent to prison for the same crime. For example, we may have decriminalized recreational marijuana use in Massachusetts, but certainly not for parolees.

The implications of this damning report turn on whether we see the glass as one-third empty or two-thirds full. Without question, there is always room for improvement and enhancement in the parole decision-making process, as well as in treatment and training services available to inmates and after care and employment services available to them once they are released. The absolute worst response to this report would be to make parole for lifers a virtually unattainable reward for introspection and hard work.

* * * * *

Clarification on definition: From scanning reader comments on the Globe report, there seems to be confusion about the term "lifer." There are life sentences without parole eligibility (in Massachusetts all those convicted of first degree murder) and life sentences with parole eligibility (e.g., second degree murder). Paroleable "lifers" actually have a sentence of 15 years to life.

Author's note: You can follow me on twitter at @jamesalanfox for notifications of new blog postings. Also, you can find me on the Web at or contact me by e-mail at

Keep parole board votes private

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment June 8, 2011 04:00 AM

Permit me to tell a story about an unimportant event that illustrates a point about something far more important.

A few weeks ago, my wife and two of her girlfriends on the block decided on an evening excursion to watch a cast of female impersonators sing and dance down at Jacque’s on Broadway in Bay Village. Because it was a Friday night, the neighborhood trio expected that husbands would be dragged along to the cabaret.

Under usual circumstances, we three guys would grin and bear it; at least there would be alcohol to dull our discomfort while watching the all "female" review. But this wasn't just any Friday night, for the Sox were in New York to play the Yankees and the Bruins were hosting Game 1 of their playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

What a Friday the 13th dilemma! Should we do the good husband thing and join our wives for the show? Or, should we instead meet at my place to watch the Sox/Bruins double feature on my 52-inch flat screen?

This hardly seemed like a close call from a purely guy perspective, yet our wives had been looking forward to the couples night at Jacque’s for weeks. Just as we all joined up to walk to the club, my buddies and I became quite vocal--complaining actually--about the great sacrifice we were making. It is a lot easier to stand up to the wife when you're not the only one protesting.


Parole failure and bad pitching

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment February 21, 2011 08:30 AM

There are times when online editions of newspapers deny readers the curious juxtapositions of stories found in print, unintended though they may be, that occasionally identify fascinating ironies in politics, current events or the social world. For example, an article about on sex education in schools may inadvertently be placed side-by-side with one about the struggles of some single mother somewhere. Or, a photograph of a public servant charged with taking bribes may be coincidentally situated above a story about a newly-discover Ponzi scheme.

In yesterday’s Sunday Globe, the print edition that is, a skillful and lengthy examination of efforts over the years to improve parole prediction tools culminates on page K4 of the Ideas section, just above a small snippet about the limitations on using minor league pitching performance to predict major league success on the mound. In both settings—predicting future criminality and future earned-run-averages—the past is a useful, but rather flawed, indicator of the future.

The most challenging problem in either case is the inherent difficulty in predicting rare events. It is a statistical fact of life that unusual or extreme outcomes can never be reliably anticipated, no matter how sophisticated the prediction device or how voluminous the data used to craft it.


"American Parolee" - Not quite reality TV

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment January 24, 2011 07:30 AM

Imagine if you will, as the late Rod Serling used to say as the lead into episodes of The Twilight Zone, a world in which popular opinion rules. Imagine a society in which America votes to determine not only the best singer, the top model, the fanciest dancer and the funniest comic, but more serious matters as well.

How whimsical would it be to have a reality TV show for making parole decisions? On “American Parolee,” hopeful inmates “audition” for freedom, as viewers at home phone in or text message their votes for approval or disapproval. Given the pervasive "throw away the key" sentiment, it would likely be as difficult for an inmate to win release as it is for contestants to survive the weekly eliminations on real-life reality TV.

Of course, I'm not serious about this programming idea, nor do I envision the folks at FOX (no relation) running with the concept. It would be incredibly unfair to make such weighty decisions based on public opinion informed only by a brief performance on the tube.

Notwithstanding my facetiousness, countless residents of Massachusetts felt that they knew better than did the sitting parole board with regard to Dominic Cinelli's suitability for release. They knew better, just from reading news accounts and watching a brief video clip. They could easily tell that Cinelli was dangerous, without having to sit through a lengthy hearing, reviewing a thick file of documents or engaging in the kind of deliberative process that the parole board members undertook. Actually, the only way in which the average Joe knew any better than the six board members who recommended parole for Cinelli was an awareness of the tragic outcome.


A vote for parole

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment January 14, 2011 10:30 AM

Notwithstanding the unfair rush to judgment by some politicians in the immediate aftermath of the fatal shooting of a Woburn police officer at the hands of a paroled repeat offender, Governor Deval Patrick, after receiving a report on the circumstances surrounding the case, did the only thing he could to begin to restore public confidence in the parole system. Yet, accepting the resignations of five board members who voted to release parolee Dominic Cinelli and appointing an exceptionally talented and well-respected professional like Josh Wall to serve as parole board chair are only the initial steps needed to resolve the situation.

The tragic outcome of Cinelli’s parole release was, of course, a painful loss for the slain officer’s family and friends as well as colleagues and community. It was also a major public relations debacle for a critically important and long-standing criminal justice process in which there was rather little support in the first place. It would be unfortunate if in moving forward the new board adopted Nancy Reagan’s famous mantra, “just say no.” Our entire sentencing structure, which tends to be predicated on the idea of “letting the punishment fit the worst criminal,” requires the flexibility provided by the parole process.


Who's really to blame for parole failure?

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment January 6, 2011 12:45 PM

Honestly, I am growing frustrated by hearing politician after posturing politician question how it is possible that a prisoner serving a life sentence can be paroled. The answer is simple: that is the law, one that many of these politicians helped to craft.

In this state, first degree murder carries an automatic and genuine life sentence without the possibility of parole for offenders as young as 14. Others receiving life sentences, including second degree murderers and certain repeat felons, are indeed eligible for parole consideration after a prescribed period of years (15 years for second degree murderers). Most do not get released on their first parole bid, and many remain incarcerated through several failed parole hearings.

It appears that many observers misunderstand the meaning of life sentences. Perhaps they wouldn’t be so confused and dismayed if parole-eligible life sentences were repackaged as, for example, “15 years to life.” In many situations, trial judges have no discretion in sentencing defendants, and it then becomes the job of the parole board to tailor punishments at the back end.

We are all saddened, of course, by the tragic outcome of Dominic Cinelli’s release. However, those who are demanding the immediate resignations of the Parole Board members should perhaps focus more on whether these public servants were doing their appointed and difficult task to the best of their ability and in an impartial manner, than on the outcome of one case. Before concluding that the Parole Board must go -- be it the process itself or just the six members who unanimously endorsed Cinelli’s release, we should examine the entirety of their decisions. The performance of the Parole Board should be assessed on more than this one case, however awful the consequences were.

In addition, we should be careful in second-guessing a parole decision without having heard all the testimony and read the entire case file. The fact that the vote on Cinelli’s parole petition was unanimous would suggest that the board members may have had more information at hand than we do from various media reports and a video clip.

Undeniably, it is important to have a full review of the Cinelli parole decision, and resolve whatever problems are identified (such as the lack of outreach to the DA’s Office). However, unless there emerges a pattern of poor decision-making by the Parole Board, we should avoid hastily altering a process that has significant value or demanding wholesale resignations from individuals who were doing their best.

Officer John Maguire's killer is no longer around to face public scorn, causing collective anger to be diverted to other targets. However, the villain in this tragedy is Dominic Cinelli, not the individuals who released him.


Parole failure in perspective

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment December 30, 2010 04:00 PM

Two thousand and ten has been a rough year for the Massachusetts criminal justice system. First, the state’s probation department, once considered a model for the nation, was exposed and disgraced by a Globe Spotlight Team investigation that uncovered appalling examples of favoritism, nepotism, and abuse of power. The second shoe then dropped last Sunday when Woburn police officer John "Jack" Maguire was gunned down allegedly by Dominic Cinelli, an ex-con who had been paroled two years ago despite his multiple life sentences for an array of violent crimes.

These two blemishes on the justice system are quite different, however. Problems in the probation department were apparently systematic and long-standing, while recent criticism of parole decision-making surrounds one particular case. More important is the distinction in terms of what steps should be considered as a consequence of these scandals. The probation department clearly needed to be reformed in major ways, all the way up to top leadership; nothing about the latest controversy over one prisoner’s release should serve as an indictment of the entire practice of parole granting.

It would be a shame if a necessary and generally successful process is radically altered based on one failure, no matter how tragic the outcome. All too often, we over-respond to exceptional situations, and eliminate policies and programs that, for the most part, have value and serve us well. Decades ago, the state’s furlough system for lifers preparing for conditional release was scrapped when inmate Willie Horton embarrassed the state and then Governor Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. Hopefully, our response to the alleged re-offending by Dominic Cinelli will be sensible, resisting political pressure to discard the baby with the bath water.


Where were you when John Lennon was murdered?

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment December 8, 2010 01:45 PM

Thirty years ago today, former Beatle John Lennon was shot to death outside of his home on the Upper West Side of New York City, the news of which shocked fans and non-fans alike around the globe. Oddly enough, many of us in Boston heard about the tragedy from sports announcer Howard Cosell during a Monday Night Football telecast, just as Patriot's placekicker, John Smith, prepared to attempt a game winning field goal with just three seconds left on the clock. I vividly recall where I was watching, nervously awaiting the kick, when suddenly Cosell dismissed the critical moment of the game as irrelevant in the face of stunning reality.

While we Pats fans are still enjoying the afterglow from this week’s victory on Monday Night Football, it useful, at least from a criminal justice policy perspective, to consider what has come of Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, as well as how the justice system should deal with cases like his, be they infamous or not.

During his trial, Chapman insisted on pleading guilty, despite his attorney’s advice to claim legal insanity. Chapman, based on his own admission, had assembled a possible hit list of celebrities, which included Tonight Show host Johnny Carson and actress Elizabeth Taylor. But John Lennon was at the top of the Chapman's list because of his relative accessibility.

Consistent with New York State law, Chapman was given a life sentence, but with the possibility of parole after 20 years. Although the prospect of parole for the Beatle-killer may have offended countless observers at the time, there is, of course, a huge difference between eligibility for parole and release on parole. Three decades after the murder, Chapman remains locked up at Attica Prison, having been denied parole on no less than six occasions.

It is not just the high profile nature of the case or the fact that Yoko Ono and many others have voiced opposition that continues to frustrate Chapman’s bids for conditional freedom. Typically, parole boards are not easily convinced.


Probation's failures threaten public safety

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment May 23, 2010 12:00 PM

Someone ought to send the Daily Beast a link to today’s Globe Spotlight Team’s exposé on the Massachusetts Department of Probation. Just last week, this well-known news and opinion website ranked Massachusetts 46th in it’s overall list of most corrupt states--that’s 46th from the top, meaning we are one of the least corrupt! And in terms of the Beast’s public corruption sub-scale, the Bay State landed in the middle of the pack. Perhaps the Beast’s analysts might want to rethink things a bit after today’s revelations about patronage at Probation.

As a citizen of the Commonwealth, I, like presumably most of you, found the level of nepotism and favoritism in hiring and promotion decisions in the Probation Department to be absolutely appalling. As a criminologist, concerned about community alternatives to incarceration, about efforts to direct wayward youth in more positive directions, and about the importance of assisting families and children in need, I found the extent of corruption to be inexcusable.

The Spotlight Team is quite right in citing the stellar reputation that the Department of Probation once enjoyed. Under the stewardship of former Commissioner Donald Cochran and former Deputy Commissioner Ronald Corbett, Jr., the department was widely regarded for innovative approaches and for launching programs that were models for the nation. Most notably, Operation Night Light, which paired probation officers with police officers to make late-night house calls ensuring that young probationers were in compliance with court-ordered curfews, was a significant piece of Boston’s success during the 1990s in reducing youth violence. Named a promising program by the U.S. Department of Justice, Night Light was copied in many cities across the land.

Today’s Spotlight piece does an excellent job of documenting how the best people have often been overlooked in favor of the best connected. As is carefully documented, questionable employment practices have impacted the state’s already strained budget. However, the Globe report is silent (at least through Part One) on the larger problem: the countless number of probationers who may not have received the best services and supervision possible, as well as the threat to public safety when probation fails to do its job.

LaGuer - rather be right than free?

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment April 22, 2010 07:29 PM

It is usually an uphill battle for prisoners, having previously been convicted of brutal crimes such as rape or homicide, to convince a parole board that they are suitable for release into the community. In Massachusetts, only 25% of lifers are successful in their bids for freedom. Understandably, the board members tend to weight their deliberation toward public safety concerns.

But in the case of today’s Massachusetts Parole Board hearing for Benjamin LaGuer, who has served 26 years of a life sentence for aggravated rape of an elderly neighbor, the battle was virtually over not long after it began. It would be shocking were he to garner even one vote in his favor, much less the majority.

LaGuer’s dilemma is certainly understandable: how can he demonstrate that he has been rehabilitated while insisting that he was innocent all along? In his prepared opening statement, he actually did a fairly good job of walking that fine line, by expressing sympathy for the victim yet outlining his plans for housing, work, and education, were he to be paroled. However, he then had to respond to a barrage of questions posed by the panel; it was an immediate and lengthy train wreck that only grew worse as the hours dragged on.


About the author

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University. He has written 18 books, including his newest, "Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool through College." More »

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