Yvonne Abraham

Without mercy

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / July 28, 2011

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John Babcock was getting out in December anyway.

He’d earned his 23 years in prison. A heroin addict, Babcock, 57, amassed a long record during the 1970s and 1980s: drug offenses, walking away from prerelease programs, assault, and armed robberies. (During one robbery, he shot at a security guard.)

He was the kind of guy for whom average folks have little sympathy - understandably.

But even Babcock deserved better than Governor Deval Patrick’s tough new parole board gave him. His case reveals a board that was not merely cautious in the wake of a Woburn police officer’s December murder, but one that went out of its way to say no. In the words of a Superior Court judge, the board turned its own regulations “on their head’’ to keep Babcock behind bars.

In the spring of 2010, Babcock learned he had untreatable cancer in addition to Hepatitis C and liver disease. According to two doctors, he had months to live. He needed help dressing, bathing, and getting his food. He suffered from pain, nausea, and severe weakness.

Babcock wanted to die at his wife’s home in Vermont. And under parole regulations, his condition made him eligible for early release. He was too ill to be a danger to anyone, doctors said; the heroin habit that had driven him to crime was no longer a factor. (He was getting legal narcotics for his cancer.) Prison officials supported his application.

Then, on Dec. 26, Dominic Cinelli - paroled from a life sentence - murdered officer John Maguire. Amidst the outrage, Patrick broomed most of the parole board.

In January, the two remaining members granted Babcock early release. His request was considered again in June, after Patrick installed prosecutor Josh Wall as head of parole.

The board reversed the previous decision, unanimously denying release.

“Babcock would be likely to reoffend (heroin use),’’ read the decision signed by Wall, who called the inmate “a person of demonstrated lawlessness who would be at liberty without deterrence.’’

In other words, Wall argued that Babcock was dangerous because, with death imminent, he had nothing to deter him from crime.

You don’t have to have a bleeding heart to think this is messed up. Hearing Babcock’s appeal earlier this month, Superior Court Judge Douglas Wilkins, a former assistant attorney general, called the board on its upside-down reasoning.

“Such manipulation raises constitutional concerns,’’ he said, because it amounted to “an unlawful retroactive increase in punishment.’’

Wilkins sent the case back to the parole board. On July 18, they denied Babcock again, using the same reasoning as before.

Proof of their wrong-headedness came quickly. On Friday morning, John Babcock died.

Maybe you don’t care about people like Babcock. Maybe you reckon we need a crackdown after Maguire’s murder.

If so, this parole board is for you. In 2010, 58 percent of parole requests were granted to non-lifers in state prisons. So far this year: 35 percent. (No lifers have been released so far.)

But here’s why this is not the victory it seems. Our prisons are a dangerously overcrowded, budget-busting mess, and now we’re keeping more inmates inside. Other states are realizing that the cheapest, most effective way to keep the public safe is to parole more inmates into communities where, with the right supports, the risk of reoffending is low. We’re headed in the opposite direction.

In an interview yesterday, Wall, who declined comment on Babcock, said he believes “very strongly in parole’’ and is not trying to drive down release rates.

“We focus on the facts and the law and on successful reentry,’’ he said. “This board is not motivated to reach a specific statistical goal.’’

It sounds reasonable, until you consider the fact that he and his board went out of their way to make sure a man who was going to be free in December anyway died an inmate.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at