Governor Deval Patrick’s revamped Parole Board has voted since last April to grant early release to 17 serious criminal offenders, most of them probably convicted murderers, but the panel has not notified any of the inmates - or the families of their victims - that they are on the path to freedom.
The delay in processing applications for parole by so-called lifers - inmates serving sentences of 15 years to life - is part of a broader backlog that has built up at the Parole Board since a paroled lifer fatally shot a Woburn police officer, triggering a shake-up at the agency. The Parole Board also has failed to notify more than 100 lifers that their requests for parole over the last year have been rejected.
Prisoner advocates say the delays, coupled with stricter standards for releasing other inmates on parole, have contributed heavily to a 58 percent drop in the number of inmates who are released under parole supervision - from 1,028 in 2010 to 435 in 2011 - putting upward pressure on the state prison population.
“The total effect is more people in prison overall, and fewer people released under supervision,’’ said James R. Pingeon of Prisoners’ Legal Services, a group that provides representation to inmates. “It’s doubly bad.’’
The Parole Board chairman, Josh Wall, defends his agency’s performance, arguing that the new board is simply being more careful while coping with a shortage of resources.
He attributed delays in notifying lifers about their parole requests to a backlog of cases left by the previous board, more rigorous scrutiny of parole applications, and a staff shortage.
“The priority is public safety,’’ Wall said, adding that he has chosen to leave several administrative posts vacant in favor of hiring more parole officers, who have been on the job for several months. “We have limited resources and limited personnel.’’
Wall took over as chairman in February 2011, following the Dec. 26, 2010, fatal shooting of a Woburn police officer, John Maguire, by Domenic Cinelli, a career criminal serving three life sentences at the time of his 2008 parole. Cinelli killed Maguire during a botched jewelry heist and was slain in the ensuing shoot-out.
Amid a public outcry, the five Parole Board members who participated in the 6-0 vote to release Cinelli resigned, as did the board’s executive director.
Wall said the new board, which resumed lifer parole hearings last April, has held 139 hearings for lifers and voted favorably in 17, an approval rate of 12 percent. By contrast, the board granted 34 percent of lifer parole requests in 2010, before Wall took over, and 40 percent of applications in 2009.
But the board has posted only 13 parole decisions on its website - all resounding rejections of requests made by a collection of murderers and one rapist. That leaves 126 who are still waiting to learn the outcome of parole hearings up to 11 months later.
Wall, a former Suffolk County prosecutor, said he has attempted to improve parole practices by providing training to board members and leaving three attorney positions as well as the executive director’s post vacant, to free up funds for additional parole officers, including those supervising sex offenders.
To speed the process of notifying lifers of the outcome of their hearings, Wall said, he and the six other parole board members will begin writing decisions themselves.
“Decisions will be coming out at a steady rate beginning in April,’’ he said.
Advocates say the delays - the 13 lifers whose requests for parole were rejected typically waited six months for notification - are an unreasonable burden for inmates, especially those who the Parole Board has concluded are rehabilitated enough to be released. Most probably still face additional prison time in minimum-security and prerelease facilities before their release to the streets.
“The wait can be excruciating,’’ said Patricia Garin, an attorney who helps run a Northeastern University law school clinic that provides representation for lifers seeking parole.
Victims’ advocates say that families can suffer when the Parole Board takes so long to announce decisions. Victims’ family members frequently testify at parole hearings, then wait anxiously to learn if their loved one’s killer will be set free.
Laurie Myers, the executive director of Community Voices, a child protection and victim advocacy organization, said “a little extra consideration’’ of lifer parole applications could enhance public safety. But she said unreasonable delays can be a disservice to victims and their families.
“The system owes it to [victims’ families] to move speedily and give them whatever information it has so they can move forward with their lives,’’ she said.
Inmate advocates say the Parole Board also takes much too long to decide whether parolees may have violated the terms of their parole and should go back to prison. They say parolees are often locked up for six months or more while awaiting a decision, far longer than the 60 days that advocates regard as reasonable.
“The delay in the revocation process is inexcusable and unlawful,’’ said Pingeon, the litigation director at Prisoners’ Legal Services, citing a US Supreme Court ruling from the 1970s that calls for a ruling within a reasonable time.
In addition, inmate advocates say that new, tougher parole practices for all inmates - most parolees are not lifers - are contributing to prison overcrowding by making it more difficult to win parole. The statewide prison population grew from 11,409 to 11,754 in 2011, but the population might have declined if the number of inmates released on parole had not dropped by 593.
Inmates who do not receive parole, or cannot fulfill conditions to qualify, such as the completion of drug treatment or sex offender programs, finish their sentences behind bars, so that when they are released they often have no one supervising their transition. Inmates released on parole, by contrast, must make regular contact with a parole officer and may need to pass drug and alcohol tests to remain free.
Last year, only 19 percent of the state prison inmates who were released had parole supervision, compared with 38 percent in 2010, according to Department of Correction statistics.
Wall said a reduction in the parole approval rate for nonlifer inmates may not be the only factor contributing to an increase in the prison population. But he acknowledged it is important: The parole approval rate for nonlifers in state prisons since May 2011 was only 45 percent compared with 58 percent in 2010 and 66 percent in 2009.
Wall said the new board is taking steps to improve the success rate of nonlifer inmates once they are released, an initiative that can slow the process. The board is requiring more of them to serve additional time in lower-security facilities, where they may receive job training and other counseling to ease their transition to the outside.
But prisoner advocates say that the additional requirements often bring additional delays because beds at lower-security facilities are in such short supply. According to the Department of Correction, 1,665 inmates were being held earlier this month in minimum and prerelease facilities designed to house 1,376 inmates.
“Those beds are precious and there are not enough of them,’’ said Leslie Walker, the executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services.
Wall insisted that the new board is committed to granting early release to inmates who are eligible for parole, and who show that they are ready to leave without presenting a safety risk.
“We’re being more careful,’’ he said. “Being more careful is not a crackdown.’’