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Reforming Parole by Getting Smart on Crime

Monday, May 23rd, 2011
By Ben Thomas

The Massachusetts’ legislature is still considering how best to reform parole after the tragic death of Woburn Police Officer Jack Macguire in December 2010. Macquire’s murder occurred at the gun of Dominic Cinelli, a repeat offender released on parole in 2008 after serving 24 years of three concurrent life sentences. Officer Maguire’s murder and similar violent crimes committed by repeat offenders reflect a need for parole reform in Massachusetts.

In response to the outcry that followed Macquire’s death, state legislators and Governor Patrick filed parole reform bills. One bill, H.000434, would eliminate the option of parole for all three-time felons. Alternatively, Governor Patrick’s bill (H.00041) would eliminate parole for three-time felons convicted of specific, serious violent felonies. Following a House committee hearing in March, it is still not clear what reforms will be undertaken.

In deciding how to reform parole, we should consider the results of tough on crime reforms enacted in other states. As early as the 1970s, criminal justice policy began a shift from rehabilitation practices towards incapacitation through incarceration. This shift was embodied in various tough on crime policies, including mandatory minimum sentences and diminished parole and probation.
A major consequence of these policies was that the incarceration rate rose every year from 1980 to 2008. At the height in 2008, the U.S. incarcerated 753 of every 100,000 people. Historically, the U.S. incarcerated less than 200 of every 100,000 people between 1880 and 1980. Even after a slight decrease in 2009, the U.S. incarceration rate remains among the highest in the world and continues to far outpace the rates of other western countries.

What has increased incarceration achieved? Well, crime has been dropping since the 1990s and current crime rates are at 40 to 50 year lows. But, studies suggest that increased incarceration only explains a portion of the drop in crime. A study by Economist Steve Levitt suggests that rising incarceration accounted for about one-third of the reduction in crime that occurred in the 90s. Likewise, the Sentencing Project’s Marc Mauer explains that the most optimistic studies indicate that increased imprisonment only explains 25% of the drop in violent crime. At the current levels, incarceration’s effectiveness at reducing crime is in question.

What has increased incarceration cost us? The states and federal government spend approximately $50 billion on incarceration annually. Similarly, correction expenditures rose faster than the states’ expenditures on healthcare and education between 1986 and 2001. Incarceration costs rose in direct relation to the rise in the incarceration rate, which resulted largely from tough on crime policies.

Massachusetts weathered the tough on crime policy storm better than most states. Massachusetts incarcerates just over 200 of every 100,000 people. But, the state still spent $1.2 billion on corrections in 2008 (visit sentencingproject.org for more information). If we eliminate parole for all three-time felony offenders, the incarceration rate and corrections expenditures will increase. So we must ask, is this the most efficient way to achieve our goals? Public safety is a top priority, but so is ensuring tax dollars are spent wisely.

Smart alternatives to incarceration are available. To start, reforms that diminish parole should focus only on violent repeat offenders. Targeting violent offenders will ensure that prison resources are used only on the most dangerous. Next, parole supervision should be improved by incorporating empirically verified practices. We could look to Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program. HOPE diminishes reoffending by focusing on certainty of punishment rather than severity, and by shortening the time between a probation violation and a sanction. At the program’s start, probationers are warned that violations will result in immediate jail stays between two days and a few weeks. The program tries to ensure that when probationers fail a drug test in the morning that they will be back in jail by the evening. In its pilot round, HOPE decreased probation revocations to 5% and improved drug test compliance by 90%. More importantly, by decreasing re-incarceration, HOPE was able to decrease net corrections expenditures. Since its expansion, HOPE continues to succeed. Insights from HOPE can and should be incorporated into our parole reforms.

As HOPE shows, we can diminish corrections expenditures without going soft on crime and we can improve public safety without getting tough on crime. Smart options include enhanced parole supervision, increased rehabilitation programs, and targeted punishment reforms. By getting smart on crime, we will better protect the public, decrease incarceration, and save valuable tax dollars.


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