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Parole records under Romney, Patrick similar

Data on releases reveal little about politics

By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / February 7, 2011

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The Christmas weekend slaying of a Woburn police officer by a recently paroled inmate renewed criticism in some quarters that Democratic Governor Deval Patrick, who had been in office two years when Domenic Cinelli was freed, is soft on crime.

But over the past 20 years, the percentage of inmates paroled while serving a life sentence like Cinelli’s peaked in 2004, when all seven members of the state Parole Board had been appointed or reappointed by Republican governors, according to data obtained from the agency. Mitt Romney, a Republican, was governor that year but did not have a majority of the appointees on the board until late 2005.

Under both Romney and Patrick, the statistics show, the board had years when it approved 40 percent or more of so-called “lifers’’ for early release.

In contrast, the board in the 1990s under Governor William F. Weld, a Republican, never paroled more than 23 percent of lifers and in his last year paroled only 6 percent. Weld is the former US attorney who famously vowed to “reintroduce Massachusetts prisoners to the joy of busting rocks.’’

Weld’s opposition to parole earned praise from law enforcement officials, who had criticized his Democratic predecessor, Michael Dukakis, as too lenient. But his stance drew fire from defense lawyers. They said it kept people behind bars after they no longer posed a danger. And, they said, it resulted in some offenders serving out sentences and being released directly to the streets without the supervision of parole.

“In the early 1990s, the doors of our prisons were welded shut,’’ said James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University, who characterized the parole rates of lifers under Romney and Patrick as similar. In the 2000s, he said, “The doors swung back open.’’

Eric Fehrnstrom, a spokesman for Romney, defended his boss’s record. He noted that the Governor’s Council rejected Romney’s first two nominees to the Parole Board as too hard-line. He also said that Romney granted no commutations or pardons as governor, a power strictly at Romney’s discretion, and tried to bring back the death penalty. And he noted that Cinelli first came up for parole in 2005, when Romney was governor, and the board rejected him.

“Mitt Romney was a law-and-order governor who time and again demonstrated his commitment to keeping the public safe from violent criminals,’’ Fehrnstrom said in a statement last week. Romney, he said, tried to appoint board members with law enforcement backgrounds but met resistance from council members and legislators.

Mary Beth Heffernan, Patrick’s public safety secretary, said Patrick intends to restore the public’s faith in the parole system in the wake of the Woburn murder and has introduced a bill to increase the time served by habitual offenders like Cinelli. But she declined to address the statistics.

Weld did not return phone calls and e-mails.

The annual percentage of lifers who earn parole is an imperfect tool for gauging a governor’s attitude toward crime and punishment, according to criminologists, a former board member, and advocates for parole.

The Parole Board holds about 100 hearings a year for lifers, who are eligible for parole after serving 15 years in prison. That represents barely 1 percent of the 9,000 to 10,000 hearings that the panel — appointed by the governor with the council’s approval — holds annually for inmates convicted of various crimes.

And it can take time for a governor to put his or her stamp on the board. The board members serve staggered five-year terms and can be reappointed an unlimited number of times.

Also, a variety of factors can cause the percentage of lifers winning parole to surge. A pile of applications by inmates previously rejected can increase pressure to grant parole, especially if the prisoners have heeded advice to participate in programs to discourage violence and drug abuse.

Still, the percentage of paroled lifers can serve as a measure of the board’s attitude about freeing some of the most serious offenders, according to people familiar with the parole system. Most lifers have been convicted of second-degree murder. If paroled, they will spend the rest of their lives on supervised release. Lifer hearings mark the only time the full board sits.

“Lifers have the lowest recidivism rates of parolees, but it’s perceived by the public as a higher-stakes, higher-risk decision,’’ said Patricia Garin, a Boston defense lawyer who helps run a Northeastern University law clinic that provides law students as counsel for lifers seeking parole. “And so the board has to be composed of people who are strong in their belief of the importance of parole and the success of parole to have a high lifer[-release] rate.’’

The perils of paroling the wrong lifer became clear on Dec. 26 when Cinelli fatally shot Woburn police officer John Maguire during a jewelry heist. Cinelli, a violent career criminal who had received three concurrent life sentences, had been paroled in February 2009 as a result of a 6-0 vote the prior year by the board.

The slaying rekindled criticism in some quarters that Patrick was too lenient on crime. The six board members who voted to release Cinelli included two whom Patrick had appointed and two whom Romney had appointed and Patrick had reappointed, according to council records.

During his 2006 gubernatorial campaign, Patrick fended off accusations of leniency for having written letters to the board on behalf of a convicted rapist, Benjamin LaGuer, and for having donated to a legal fund to pay for DNA tests of evidence collected in the case against LaGuer.

On the defensive again after Maguire’s slaying, Patrick released a damning review of how the board handled Cinelli’s parole application and how staff supervised him on release. Five board members resigned under pressure from Patrick.

But the statistics show that the percentage of lifers to win parole peaked under Romney in 2004, when 44 percent of the 133 inmates who applied were freed. That compares with 40 percent of the 88 applicants in 2009, the highest percentage during Patrick’s first term, according to the data. Statistics for 2010 were not available.

The data show that the parole rate for lifers plunged under Weld, then climbed under Cellucci. After reaching its apex in Romney’s second year in office, it dipped before rising in Patrick’s third year in office.

Fox theorized that many lifers who won parole in the Romney era had been rejected by Weld’s board when they first became eligible and had reapplied five and perhaps 10 years later.

“There were likely inmates in the 1990s who would ordinarily be paroled but whose releases were being delayed by a very stringent board and pushed off to a subsequent board,’’ Fox said.

Len Engel, managing associate for policy at the Crime and Justice Institute, part of the Boston-based nonprofit Community Resources for Justice, said the comparison of lifer parole rates over the past two decades is not particularly meaningful, given the small number of cases each year, nor is it surprising.

“We knew Bill Weld was going to come in and change the state’s approach to offenders — the joy of busting rocks — and you see that corresponding decline in grant rates for lifers during those years,’’ he said. “Then you see pretty much consistent percentages over the next nine or ten years.’’

Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.