"The public has lost confidence in Parole, and I have lost confidence in Parole."
So says Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, referring to the state Parole Board.
In the last few weeks, the governor has come under pressure from police groups, victim rights advocates and any number of elected officials who hope to appear tough on crime, following the shooting death of a Woburn police officer by a man released on parole in 2008.
Late last week, in the immediate wake of a report released by the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, Patrick accepted the resignations of five of the six board members who voted to parole Domenic Cinelli, 57, a career criminal with a long history of violence. (The sixth member had already resigned and a seventh position on the board remains vacant; the controversy also resulted in the resignation of one of the agency's top administrators and the suspension of several ranking parole department employees.) Following an attempted jewelry heist on Dec. 26, 2010, Cinelli shot and killed Woburn Police Officer John Maguire and was himself later killed in a shootout with police.
New reports of the parole board purge gave Patrick credit for swift and decisive action. The Boston Herald, the more conservative-leaning of Boston's two daily papers, headlined its story, "Patrick Cleans House," while the Boston Globe announced, "Patrick Overhauls Parole."
In my view, the Herald got it half wrong and the Globe booted it entirely. A more appropriate headline would have been, "Patrick Panders, Passively Purges Parole Pals." (No extra charge for the alliteration.)
First, at the risk of seeming politically naive, I'll note that Patrick didn't fire anyone, but engaged in the time-honored tradition of politely accepting the resignations of people who, whether because of true malfeasance or just because they've become political liabilities, are no longer helpful to the administration. Rather than run the risk of firing people publicly and having one or more of them fight back, Patrick apparently persuaded the board members to take themselves out and convinced the media that, in fact, he'd sent them packing.
Second, at the risk of seeming unappreciative of how hard it is for chief executives like Deval Patrick to find good people, I'll note that Patrick himself appointed four of the five members to whom he's just bade adieu. That includes his hand-picked chairman, Mark A. Conrad, a retired Milton police officer who worked on Patrick's 2006 gubernatorial campaign as the candidate's personal chauffeur. The governor came under substantial criticism when he appointed Conrad in 2007, with a number of lawyers and lawmakers saying Conrad lacked the credentials to be on the parole board. Conrad was paid a salary of $120,000, while salaries for the other board members ranged between $80,000and $100,000.
Third, I'll argue that Patrick appears to have based his purge of Parole almost entirely on an eight-page report rushed out of his public safety department in a little more than two weeks. The report notes that the parole board's unanimous decision to release Cinelli was based, in large part, on incomplete and inaccurate information furnished to board members by a parole system that had an "inability, during this fiscal crisis, to fill key management positions." Rather than explain the board's specific failing in the Cinelli case, it criticizes its chairman for his inability to "explain the management lapses" that occurred in that one case.
Lastly, I'll point out that the governor apparently felt he needed to do more than simply get rid of the old board and bring in a new one—one that includes his Harvard contemporary Josh Wall, first assistant district attorney in Suffolk County, as interim executive director; Patrick has nominated Wall as the permanent chairman. Patrick also proposes strengthening the state's habitual offender law to require that violent felons with two prior serious convictions receive the maximum sentence for a third felony, and requiring an offender convicted of three felonies to serve at least two-thirds of the third sentence before being eligible for parole. Currently, offenders are eligible after serving half their sentences.
Despite his half-capitulation to the reactionary thinking that brought us the notorious "three strikes" laws in the first place, Patrick remains under pressure to adopt Melissa's bill, proposed legislation backed by House Republicans and a growing number of Democratic lawmakers, that would make criminals ineligible for parole after a third felony conviction. In the meantime, Patrick seems to have treated the parole controversy as a political problem, not a problem of public policy. His response, to decapitate a troubled department, turns on the popular idea that the buck stops at the top. Unfortunately, in this case, the buck stopped a few floors shy of the penthouse.