Monday, August 22, 2011

Massachusetts Monday: Parole: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?

FAMM’s Massachusetts Project, joined by other legal advocacy groups, recently spoke out about the dropping parole rates under the state’s reorganized Parole Board. We told Gov. Deval Patrick that his new appointees to the Board seem to be undermining certain 2010 drug sentencing reforms that he championed as well as his own legislative agenda for the current session of the Legislature.

In January 2011, Gov. Deval Patrick called for the resignations of most Parole Board members, following the murder of a Woburn police officer by a violent career criminal on parole. He then appointed five new members, including a new Chairman, a former prosecutor. As of July 2011 the parole rate for state prisoners had plummeted to 31% from the 58% annual paroling rate in 2010. For county prisoners, the parole rate fell to 46% from the 2010 annual rate of 64%. Despite the tragic events that led to changes at the Parole Board, Massachusetts had a 78% success rate for parolees – far greater than the national average.

FAMM, the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (the state’s public defender agency) and the ACLU of Massachusetts sent a letter to the Governor expressing our concerns that the new Parole Board appears to be undermining the 2010 reforms he signed into law. Those reforms allow certain county drug offenders serving mandatory minimums to be eligible for parole after serving half of their sentences.
We understand that the 2010 reforms offered county drug offenders eligibility for parole, not a guarantee that parole would be granted. Yet we are not aware of any change in the overall county prison population – their offenses, sentences, or other characteristics – that would explain or justify the startling reduction in paroling rates for those men and women. Instead, it appears that the newly reconstituted Parole Board has chosen a policy that has substantially limited the scope of parole.
We also noted that the sharp drop in parole rates could hurt the Governor’s current bill to expand parole eligibility to state prisoners serving mandatory minimum drug sentences.
[W]e are extremely concerned that, even if [the Governor’s bill passes], those reforms may also become increasingly hollow victories, given the Parole Board’s current practices. Quite frankly, we hope and expect that the Administration is equally concerned. Massachusetts can no longer afford either the financial or human costs of lengthy prison sentences with little access to parole release for offenders who do not pose a threat to public safety.
In a Boston Globe article on the widening debate, the Patrick Administration downplayed the low parole rates:
Patrick’s spokesman, Brendan Ryan, said the drop in parole rates does not mean the governor has shifted his philosophy on criminal justice. Ryan noted that Patrick is taking steps to toughen laws for repeat offenders, while pushing for more discretion in sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders.
Parole is a critical tool for prisoners’ successful return to the community, allowing them to make that transition with a re-entry plan and under the supervision of a parole officer. FAMM will continue its efforts to make state drug offenders serving mandatory minimums eligible for parole – and to ensure that parole reforms actually translate into real opportunities for those who have earned them.

Barb Dougan
Massachusetts project director