Massachusetts Killing Shines Light on State Parole Boards

By: - February 2, 2011 12:00 am

Photo from the Office of Governor Patrick

Governor Deval Patrick announced the resignation of the entire Massachusetts Parole Board in January. The board voted two years ago to release Dominic Cinelli, a career criminal who later allegedly killed a police officer in a botched robbery attempt north of Boston.

The six members of the Massachusetts Parole Board who voted to release Dominic Cinelli from prison in 2008 knew at the outset that he posed a potential danger to society.

Cinelli, a 55-year-old career criminal, had been ordered by a judge to serve three life sentences — a punishment so tough that he would have been ineligible for parole in many other states. Massachusetts, however, allows even some “lifers” to be freed from prison.

Warning signs were apparent. Cinelli had been convicted in a string of armed robberies and armed assaults. Local law enforcement agencies considered him a threat even though he had already served two decades behind bars, and at least one parole board member expressed reservations about him when he appeared before the panel to ask for his release.

“You’re a very, very, very high risk,” Thomas Merigan told Cinelli during their face-to-face meeting, according to video footage obtained by The Boston Globe .

Any misgivings about Cinelli, however, were absent in the parole board’s final vote. Merigan and the other five board members unanimously agreed to release him, finding that he was ready for a transition to society under the supervision of a parole officer. He walked out of a state penitentiary in March 2009.

The parole board’s decision would prove to be a fatal one. On the day after Christmas last year, Cinelli and an accomplice allegedly attempted to rob a Kohl’s department store north of Boston. When police arrived at the scene, Cinelli reportedly drew a gun, and in the shooting that ensued, both the parolee and the officer — a 60-year-old father of three on the verge of retirement — were killed.

The murder of the policeman has reverberated around Massachusetts. Rank-and-file police officers, victims’ advocates and the public have struggled to understand how someone sentenced to three life terms in prison could be released into the community. All six parole board members who voted to free Cinelli have resigned, and the state has limited parole pending the appointment of a new board. Meanwhile, Governor Deval Patrick and lawmakers from both parties are moving hastily to pass major reforms to ensure a similar crime never happens again. “The outrage is universal,” says Bruce Tarr, the Republican leader in the state Senate.

At the center of the furor over Cinelli is the provision in Massachusetts sentencing law that allows some “lifetime”  prisoners to become eligible for parole as long as they have served at least 15 years and did not commit first-degree murder. That provision soon could be rewritten.

But the Cinelli case also calls attention to a different aspect of parole: the qualifications of those who decide whether prisoners should be freed or remain behind bars. Tarr and a bipartisan group of state senators have introduced legislation that would require at least three of Massachusetts’ parole board members to have five years of law enforcement experience apiece. None of those who released Cinelli had previously served in law enforcement — something Tarr sees as a major problem.

“History has taught us that a parole board decision can be as important as the original sentence,” he says. “We need to be looking at these people’s qualifications.”

Who sits on state parole boards?

While many states have eliminated parole boards or limited their powers over the years, others still grant them enormous responsibility to manage the prison population. In Massachusetts alone, the parole board held 8,828 face-to-face parole hearings in 2009, granting release to two-thirds of the applicants, according to a report ordered by Patrick following the Cinelli case.

Despite giving parole boards sweeping authority over inmate releases, many states do not require board members to have any specific criminal justice qualifications, according to a 2004 survey by the Association of Paroling Authorities International, the only known overview of state statutes on board member qualifications.

Arizona, for instance, requires only that board members “must have expressed an interest in the state’s corrections system.” Texas law states that members “must be a representative of the general public and must reside in the state two years before appointment.” Nebraska requires that appointees “shall be of good character and judicious temperament,” and Missouri says a parole board member “shall be a person of recognized integrity and honor, known to possess education and ability in decision-making through career experience or other qualifications for the successful performance of their official duties.”

Even states that demand certain academic or professional qualifications typically do not require specific knowledge of parole issues. New Jersey, for example, requires that appointees “shall have training in law, sociology, criminal justice, juvenile justice, or related branches of social services.” West Virginia says they “shall have a degree in criminal justice or like experience and academic training.”

No experience necessary?

It is not unheard of for parole board appointees, who are typically nominated by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, to have no background in criminal justice at all.

In 2006, then-New York Governor George Pataki appointed an administration spokeswoman, Jennifer Arena, to the parole board — a position that came with an annual salary of ,600. The appointment was one of hundreds the Republican governor made in his final year in office, leading the New York Post to complain of a “patronage parade” and raising concerns among Democratic senators that Arena was unqualified.

In 2009, Texas Governor Rick Perry tried to appoint a political supporter, Shanda Perkins, to the state parole board, but the Republican-led state Senate — Perry also is a Republican — took the unusual step of rejecting her, citing her lack of experience in a bipartisan 27-to-4 vote.

Just last month, Iowa’s newly inaugurated governor, Republican Terry Branstad, announced three nominations to the state parole board, including W. Thomas Phillips, a retired agriculture executive with no experience in criminal justice.

“I think it’s good to have diversity, with people with different experiences and backgrounds on the board,” Branstad told Stateline in a telephone interview. He predicted that all three of his nominees — the others are a former corrections worker and a former state lawmaker — will be approved by the Democratic-led state Senate.

A tough job, with little recognition

Many criminal justice professionals reject the notion that a parole board appointment is a prime opportunity for governors to repay their political supporters with an undemanding position that, in some states, can pay very well. In fact, the hours are often long and the work goes unrecognized, they say — unless, of course, something tragic happens.

“It only takes one bad decision, unfortunately, to have tremendous repercussions. That’s the nature of the job,” says David Blumberg, chair of Maryland’s parole board. “You have an awful lot of success stories, but they’re below the radar. The media isn’t interested in that.”

“This is a tough job,” Lisa Holley, the former chair of the Rhode Island parole board, told Stateline in a 2007 interview. “If you want to reward your friend with an appointment, it’s probably not going to be on the parole board.”

Like Branstad, many governors and parole board members see no problem in having a broad variety of professional backgrounds on the panels, making them something akin to a citizens’ jury. But in Massachusetts, there is a growing call for change because of the Cinelli case. Tarr and other legislators say the time has come to guarantee that law enforcement has a seat at the table when inmates are considered for release. “The board,” Tarr says, “has to have the perspective of folks who have to ensure public safety every day.”

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