Considering reform to parole standards in Massachusetts

A number of lawmakers in The Commonwealth of Massachusetts have found good reason to consider parole reform for repeat criminal offenders. While specific reforms to the current system have been in study for a number of years, there has been some debate as to how to move forward with new legislation. The bill that has been under consideration has become known as Melissa’s Law, named after Melissa Gosule, a Randolph school teacher who was killed in 1999 by a man who was granted parole despite having 27 criminal convictions on his record.  Melissa’s law has been through several revisions, and has yet to be brought to a vote, but the salient feature of all versions suggested has been an automatic maximum penalty for third time offenders.  (Superior court felony convictions or a third conviction felony that carries a penalty over ten years in prison).  The law would also remove parole for these offenders, count both federal and state convictions together, and eliminate some bargaining that would allow for convicts to serve concurrent sentences.

Melissa’s law makes a great deal of sense as a safe-guard for the public against violent offenders that are a true threat to society, and there are specific cases in point where having this legislation on the books would have prevented terrible and horrific crimes (ex. Melissa Gosule and officer John Maguire of Woburn.) Undoubtedly, there are violent criminals that are a threat to society who should not be released under any circumstances. The mistake, I believe, would be to act too quickly from the gut on this proposed legislation.

The Massachusetts Parole Board’s “Profile of Factors and Offenses Related to Parolee Recidivism,” gave a statistical breakdown of recidivism rates in Massachusetts based on 2004-2007 data, and found “property” offenders had the highest recidivism rate overall, followed by “person” offenders – offenders who commit assault, robbery, rape, and homicide – the population targeted by this proposed legislation. 34% of offenders in the “Person” category recidivated in their first year out of prison, 37% recidivated in their second year, and 29% recidivated in their third year.  This data, however, does not specifically address the cases of the most serious repeat violent offenders.

The “Massachusetts Recidivism Study: A Closer Look at Releases and Returns to Prison”, published in April, 2008 by The Urban Institute, came to similar conclusions for the overall rate of recidivism between the broad categories of criminal offense. Property Offenders again had the highest rates of recidivism over a three year period; 57 percent. Non-violent offenders had a 46 percent rate of recidivism overall, and violent offenders had a recidivism rate of 36 percent. For whatever reason, violent offenders on the whole were less likely to be released and then recidivate. But what about the violent offenders that do recommit? That’s what Melissa’s Law intends to address! This study does make clear that the more prior incarcerations a person has, the more likely they are to recommit. There is also a higher rate of recidivism among inmates that are released from higher security levels (50% for those in maximum security versus 40% for medium security, and 35% for Minimum security or pre-release offenders). These statistics appear to speak for themselves – More serious offenders and offenders with more offenses on their record are more likely to re-commit, although it should be noted that in some cases recommitting was the result of a violation of parole rather then a new offense, and recidivism rates were shown to be significantly higher among younger adults. Inmates released early on parole also had a significantly higher rate of recidivism over those who were released at the expiration of their sentence.

This data does suggest that younger individuals are more likely to recidivate. Therefore, it is conceivable that a young adult could commit serious offenses while they were young, perhaps even three serious felonies at one time, and they could end up in jail for life.  However, were they to be released after some years, they might be less likely to recidivate as an older person. Under Melissa’s Law, however, they would be required to serve a full life sentence for offenses committed in youth, or for a third offense committed 20, 30 or even 40 years after their initial offenses. There is also more to be said about the standards of sentencing which I will elaborate on in further posts, and the ways in which Melissa’s Law proposes to reform this system. Essentially, if there are consistent standards, as is proposed by this legislation for sentencing based on the severity of past offenses rather then the length of past incarcerations, and these standards were made predictable and consistent in all cases regardless of a particular judges personal discretion, then the possibility of undue sentencing on the behalf of individual defendants could potentially be minimized. If sentencing standards  are not consistent from inmate to inmate and from case to case, there seems to be considerable doubt as to whether sentencing is in fact a reliable measure of the severity of an offenders crimes, and the degree of threat they pose to society.  I will continue to follow this issue and share information and views regarding this proposed legislation in the weeks ahead. There is more to be said and discussed, and I hope, if nothing else, that this issue is given very careful consideration in the legislature, as it has far reaching effects in our communities, for the economy, and for the sake of justice and due process for both victims and perpetrators alike.

One reply on “Considering reform to parole standards in Massachusetts”

  1. Thanks, Peter, this is very thoughtful and I look forward to your further posts on this issue.

    Your observations suggest a point that bears careful considersation — very youthful offenders may deserve different treatment. Kids as young as 14 can now be sentenced to life without parole. I’m not sure what I think about that — kids may still be developing self-control at that age. On the other hand, very violent acts at any young age are a bad sign about likely future conduct.


Comments are closed.