Globe Editorial

Parole Board firings reflect the need for accountability

January 14, 2011

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THE MASSACHUSETTS Parole Board rises or falls on the strength of its decisions. Despite the complexities of predicting criminal behavior, the board’s 2008 decision to grant parole to serial armed robber Dominic Cinelli was so stunningly weak and so undermining of the public’s trust that the Patrick administration had no course other than to seek the resignation of the five Parole Board members who served at the time.

Cinelli was killed in a shoot-out with police following a Dec. 26 armed robbery, but not before he killed Woburn Police officer John Maguire. A follow-up investigation revealed lapses in Cinelli’s post-release supervision, prompting Patrick to initiate termination proceedings against Cinelli’s parole officer and two managers in the field office.

The case has revealed systemic lapses as well as human failures. It wasn’t until 2009 that Massachusetts even introduced the kind of statistically based risk assessment tools used in modern parole offices to determine the likelihood that a parolee will commit new crimes. Had such a tool been in place, Cinelli would have scored 9 out of 10 on the likely-to-reoffend scale, according to state officials. The parole system also fails to distinguish between minor offenders and serious repeat offenders like Cinelli. Each is required to have a monthly face-to-face meeting with a parole officer. Serious offenders should receive more frequent supervision. All these deficiencies are signs of a broken system — which Patrick hopes to fix with yesterday’s appointment of Josh Wall, a highly-regarded prosecutor, as interim director of Parole.

Wall needs to look carefully at the viability of parole for prisoners who are serving 15 years to life, as Cinelli was before his release. Parole options continue to make sense for many of the thousands of prisoners each year who would otherwise complete their sentences with no supervision at all. But the state needs sound — and presumably more restrictive — criteria when reviewing high-risk prisoners, including the roughly 100 so-called lifers who now become eligible for parole each year.

Those cases will have to be viewed with great skepticism by the new Parole Board members Patrick will appoint. The governor showed good judgment in demanding accountability from those who allowed Cinelli’s release. He should show similar judgment in finding more astute replacements.