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Senators file bill to tighten parole

Measure targets violent offenders

Joshua Wall began his term as interim director of the state Parole Board yesterday. Wall, a former Suffolk prosecutor, said the board will use a new risk assessment tool and common sense in determining who should be granted parole. Joshua Wall began his term as interim director of the state Parole Board yesterday. Wall, a former Suffolk prosecutor, said the board will use a new risk assessment tool and common sense in determining who should be granted parole. (Suzanne Kreiter/ Globe Staff)
By Michael Levenson and Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / January 25, 2011

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A bipartisan group of state senators said yesterday that they hope to prevent the release of repeat violent offenders such as Domenic Cinelli, who shot and killed a Woburn police officer, by making changes to the parole system that go further than those proposed recently by Governor Deval Patrick.

On the same day that Joshua I. Wall, the career prosecutor tapped by Patrick to rebuild the Parole Board, took over as acting head of the embattled agency, 11 senators unveiled a bill at the State House that would make it much harder for repeat offenders to win parole.

Inmates serving more than one sentence of 15 years to life — Cinelli was serving three concurrent life sentences when he was freed in 2009 — would never become eligible for parole, nor would most prisoners convicted of three or more felonies.

Prisoners serving one life sentence would be required to serve at least 25 years, up from the current 15 years, before they would become eligible for parole. And a vote to free a lifer would require the approval of two-thirds of the seven-member board, instead of a simple majority.

Many of the senators said their proposal is intended to restore public confidence in the parole system, which they said was badly undermined by Cinelli’s release. Cinelli shot and killed Maguire during a Dec. 26 jewelry heist. He was killed when Maguire returned fire.

“Everyone believes that everyone deserves a second chance,’’ said Senator Steven A. Baddour, a Methuen Democrat. “But no one, when it comes to violent crimes, deserves a third, fourth or fifth chance.’’

The Senate proposal would also change the makeup of the Parole Board, requiring that at least three of the seven members have five years or more of law enforcement experience. In addition, member’s votes — currently kept secret — would be posted on the Internet.

“We’re looking for more individuals who will take a victims’ rights perspective, who are going to be tough, who are going to be cynical as these individuals come forward seeking parole,’’ said Baddour, who is among seven Democrats and four Republicans behind the bill.

But a prisoner’s rights advocate said that, rather than restoring confidence in the system, the legislation would dismantle parole in Massachusetts and prove disastrous and costly for the prison system.

“The recidivism rates would rise precipitously because people would not be paroled; they would wrap up their sentences’’ and be released directly to the streets without any supervision, said Patricia Garin, a Boston defense lawyer who helps run a Northeastern University law clinic that provides law students for inmates seeking parole.

The Senate bill proposes a more stringent approach than the one the governor filed earlier this month. Patrick’s measure would increase the time served by third-time offenders and tighten eligibility requirements for parole. Under that bill, Cinelli would have been ineligible for parole until 2030, when he would have been 76.

The governor, who has in the past proposed combining the probation and parole departments, has suggested he may propose more changes in the coming days.

The senators said they did not know how much it would cost to keep violent offenders behind bars for longer terms under their proposal. But they downplayed the financial impact, saying the plan would affect only a small percentage of the state’s parolees.

Senate minority leader Bruce E. Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, said he hopes the bill will be one of the first items taken up in the new legislative session. “What’s at risk is the public safety of every citizen in the Commonwealth,’’ Tarr said.

On Jan. 13, Patrick and high-ranking public safety officials released a damning review detailing the agency’s missteps in paroling Cinelli and supervising him afterward. The review prompted the resignation of five of the seven board members, including Patrick’s hand-picked chairman, the resignation of the agency’s former executive director from his new job in the prison system, and the suspension of three employees who allegedly failed to adequately supervise the parolee.

In addition to appointing Wall, who was longtime first assistant district attorney in Suffolk County, as acting executive director of the Parole Board, Patrick has also nominated him to become chairman of the reconfigured board.

Wall’s confirmation hearing before the Governor’s Council is scheduled for Feb. 2. Patrick is expected to announce four other new members in a matter of days.

Wall met yesterday morning with reporters for about five minutes at the agency’s headquarters in Natick, promising to use new research and common sense to guide the panel about when offenders should be released from prison.

The acting director said his first challenge will be making wider use of a new risk-assessment tool to help the board predict whether inmates are likely to return to a life of crime once freed.

The tool, which he discussed only in broad outline, would use the latest research of psychologists and criminologists to assess parole applicants in a number of different categories.

But it would not replace common sense, Wall said.

According to state campaign finance records, Wall and his wife, Betsy Wall, have contributed $6,500 to the campaigns of Patrick and Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray since 2005. Betsy Wall has been executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism since 2007 and was named by Patrick two weeks ago as a leader of the Massachusetts Marketing Partnership, a statewide agency created through the Economic Development Bill of 2010.

In response to a reporter’s question, Wall said he did not get his job in exchange for the couple’s campaign contributions.

“I didn’t ask for this,’’ Wall said. “I was asked to do this because of my record of public service.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com; Jonathan Saltzman at jsaltzman@globe.com.