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State parole bill could have wide consequences

BIPARTISAN EFFORT Senator Bruce E. Tarr is among 11 sponsors of legislation that would sharply limit the discretion of the state Parole Board. BIPARTISAN EFFORT
Senator Bruce E. Tarr is among 11 sponsors of legislation that would sharply limit the discretion of the state Parole Board.
By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / January 31, 2011

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Legislation in the state Senate to overhaul the parole system would make it harder, if not impossible, for certain offenders to win early release and would sharply limit the discretion of the state Parole Board, according to several criminal justice specialists.

But the measure proposed last Monday by a bipartisan group of senators would not go as far as some states have in recent years, often following heinous crimes by parolees, the specialists said. In Louisiana, for example, applicants are denied parole unless they win the unanimous approval of the board. California is one of five states that empower the governor to reverse parole board decisions.

“This is tough, but it’s not tough by Texas standards or Arkansas standards or Louisiana standards,’’ Michael Tonry, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, said of the Massachusetts legislation.

The Senate measure was filed in reaction to the case of Domenic Cinelli, a paroled career criminal who shot and killed Woburn police officer John Maguire on Dec. 26 during a jewelry heist.

Even though the bill would not impose the harshest restrictions, Tonry said, it would significantly change parole practices and might have unintended consequences.

A provision that would make some habitual offenders ineligible for supervised parole, for example, could be applied to many nonviolent inmates and worsen prison overcrowding, he said.

Another provision, to increase the minimum number of years that offenders would have to serve for second-degree murder from 15 to 25, would probably cause more defendants to take their cases to trial rather than accept prosecutors’ offers to plead guilty — and perhaps clog the court system, according to another specialist on parole.

That measure would also probably discourage inmates from participating in job training, education, and other programs if it would not enhance their prospects of getting released earlier, said Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association.

“They’re taking some pretty extreme measures, when they could have just looked at what broke down in this particular case and made those tweaks to make sure it doesn’t break down again,’’ said Wicklund, whose association represents probation and parole officials.

The Senate minority leader, Bruce E. Tarr, a Gloucester Republican who is among the 11 sponsors of the legislation, said the group keenly recognized that the changes would have an impact on both the prison system and the courts.

“We’re not being cavalier about it,’’ he said Tuesday. “But with the type of individuals we’re talking about, the need to protect public safety outweighs the issues we’d have to deal with.’’

The seven Democratic and four Republican sponsors of the bill said it is intended to prevent the release of repeat violent offenders such as Cinelli. He was serving three concurrent sentences of 15 years to life when the Parole Board unanimously voted in November 2008 to parole him.

On Jan. 13, Patrick and high-ranking public safety officials released a devastating review detailing the Parole Board’s missteps in paroling Cinelli and in supervising him afterward. The review prompted the resignation of five of the seven board members, 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.

The following day, Patrick filed his own bill to change the parole system, one that would make more modest changes than the Senate bill. The governor last week also proposed merging the troubled state Probation Department — now part of the judiciary — and the Parole Board and putting them both under his control. Legislative leaders and the state’s top judges resisted such a merger when Patrick proposed it in the past.

Under the Senate bill to restrict parole, inmates serving more than one life sentence would never become eligible for parole, and prisoners serving one life sentence would be required to serve at least 25 years instead of the current 15.

These so-called “lifers’’ have usually been convicted of second-degree murder. (Cinelli never was, but had been deemed a violent habitual offender.) People convicted of first-degree murder are ineligible for parole.

Habitual offenders who had been convicted of three or more felonies — the first two of which carried a sentence of at least three years — would be ineligible for parole under the bill. And lifers could not get parole unless two-thirds of the board approved it, instead of the current simple majority.

The legislation would also require at least three board members to have five years or more of law enforcement experience. If at least two members with law enforcement experience are not present, the board could not grant parole.

In addition, parole votes would be posted online and would identify how each member voted. (California has a similar practice for votes by the full board.)

Proponents said that would enhance accountability, while critics said it might subject members to intimidation. Currently, the board specifies who sat at parole hearings and gives the tally but does not identify how each member voted.

In addition, the Senate bill would enable the governor to remove board members, with cause.

Still, many states have gone further to restrict parole and limit the discretion of parole boards.

Some states, including New York, prohibit certain violent offenders from being released early on supervised parole, including some first-time violent offenders, according to Debbie Mukamal, executive director of the Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law School.

California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, and Oklahoma authorize the governor to review and reverse parole board decisions, Mukamal said. Critics of that provision in California, which was approved by voters in 1988 and applies only to cases involving convicted murderers, say it has politicized the length of prison terms and increased incarceration costs, as more decisions to grant parole are reversed.

Nineteen states have virtually abolished the system of granting discretionary parole by a board, said Mukamal. Instead, inmates are typically sentenced to a specific number of years in prison but are released early under supervision after serving a percentage of that time, a model similar to the set-up for releasing inmates in the federal prison system.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.