Parole board still slow to release inmates 8 years after ex-convict killed officer, critics say
Dominic Cinelli was one year out of prison and on parole when he shot and killed a police officer the day after Christmas in 2010.
Since then, the number of people released on parole has remained consistently low, the state parole board has been stacked with members with law enforcement backgrounds, and the board has become less transparent, according to a coalition of attorneys, criminal justice reform groups, and prisoner rights advocates.
The coalition wrote Governor Charlie Baker on Monday, saying the board is taking longer to decide the fate of inmates and failing to properly consider their mental health and drug use disorders.
“It’s not working. It’s a terrible system,” said David Harris, managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School, a research and civil rights advocacy center that signed the letter. “We are terribly backwards and emblematic of the punitive posture we have taken in this country for far too long.”
A spokesman for Baker said the administration is reviewing the letter. According to parole board statistics, the panel last year voted to grant parole to 52 percent of prison inmates who came before it, and 68 percent of county jail inmates.
The coalition noted that in 2015 Baker replaced chairwoman Charlene Bonner, the sole psychologist on the seven-member board, with Paul M. Treseler, a former Suffolk prosecutor. Bonner remains on the board. The Baker administration said that parole board figures show that Treseler voted in favor of granting parole more often than any other board member the past two years.
“The administration has worked hard to collaborate with the Legislature on improving the entire criminal justice system over the last several years, and appreciates the thoughtful review that all seven members of the parole board give the thousands of cases they hear every year,” said Brendan Moss, a spokesman for Baker.
Critics said the parole board’s statistics are misleading because they do not take into account the number of people actually released on parole. The board often grants parole close to inmates’ scheduled release dates or places conditions for parole that inmates are unable to meet before their sentence ends, said Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services.
In 2015, only 38 percent of the prison inmates who were granted parole were released with supervision, according to a study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national group that was tasked with analyzing the state’s criminal justice system.
State officials said the parole board has begun offering earlier hearing dates for inmates eligible for parole so both the board and the offender will have more time to prepare for the inmate’s release. State officials said the number of inmates who received parole in 2017 and 2016 was not immediately available.
The 2010 killing of Woburn Police Officer John Maguire by Cinelli, who served about 30 years before he was paroled, led to mass resignations of the parole board and a tightening of parole eligibility requirements under then-governor Deval Patrick.
The percentage of parole-eligible inmates released from prisons plunged from 58 percent in 2010 to 39 percent in 2011.
“We’re still feeling the effects” of the Cinelli case, Walker said. “Every generation, there is a horrible thing that happens. The unthinkable happens and it sets things back for everyone.”
When Patrick overhauled the board, criminologists and inmate advocates predicted the move would overwhelm an overburdened prison system. At the time, the prisons held more than 11,000 inmates and were 39 percent above capacity.
But in recent years, the prison population has plunged to record lows. As of 2014, Massachusetts had the lowest prison population rate in the country, according to a 2016 study by the University of Minnesota.
At the same time, the state had one of the lowest rates of parolees living among the general population, with 36 people on parole per 100,000 adult state residents, the study found. Only three states had a lower rate of people on parole.
Citing high recidivism rates, advocates say it’s far safer to have returning inmates under supervision than let them finish their sentence and enter the community with no oversight.
“The research is clear,” Walker said. “People on parole do better. With a thoughtful, responsible parole officer, people can succeed.”
Walker said the board needs more people with expertise in substance use disorders and mental illness who can assess the current needs of inmates instead of focusing on the crime they committed years or decades before.
“Criminal justice folks are not experts in mental health. That’s not a criticism. It’s a fact,” said Vicker DiGravio, head of the Association for Behavioral Healthcare in Natick.
The letter has also drawn support from victims’ rights groups.
“It’s not going to do any good to empower families who are impacted by homicide and not work with ex-offenders,” said Milton Jones, director of operations at the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute in Dorchester. “Do we want them to come back as hurt and broken as they went in or do we want them to come back with some degree of healing?”
But Anne Murphy, a member of the Southeastern Massachusetts chapter of Parents Of Murdered Children, said parole should be reserved for low-level offenders, not convicted killers or sex offenders.
“A lot of the people who have lost children and family members have a life sentence,” said Murphy, whose son Devyn was fatally stabbed in 2002, and who spoke as an individual and not a representative of the group. “Their child or family member isn’t going to come back.”
A previous version of this article misstated the number of inmates who were granted parole and the percentage of inmates who were released on parole in 2015. That year, 38 percent of the 632 prison inmates who received a positive vote from the parole board were released on parole.