The “before” picture
County prisons, known in Massachusetts as “houses of correction,” house inmates who have been sentenced for less serious offenses, usually for sentences up to 2 ½ years. (Prisoners serving longer sentences are usually incarcerated at a state prison.) In the typical scenario, a county prisoner becomes eligible for parole after serving one-half of his or her sentence. At that point, the state Parole Board decides if the prisoner is suitable for release — if it’s likely that he will stay out of trouble — under the supervision of a parole officer. The Board’s decision is based on the prisoner’s criminal history, his efforts to address the issues that landed him behind bars and how he has conducted himself while incarcerated. (For the statutory language on the standard for parole, see Mass. General Laws chapter 127, section 130, “Granting of parole permits.”)
Up to now, prisoners who were serving mandatory minimum sentences have not been eligible for parole. That sort of restriction might sound good as a “tough on crime” measure, but it actually undermines public safety. Too often those prisoners return to the community without preparation or Parole Board supervision, commit new crimes and go back to prison – creating the oft-lamented revolving door of recidivism.
For drug offenders, this has been a particularly counterproductive approach. Under our drug sentencing laws, the courts are required to impose often disproportionately harsh sentences even when the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. See my March 12 post Hooked on prison: the case for drug sentencing reform for an overview of mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws. Once in prison, drug offenders serving mandatory minimums are barred from earning “good conduct” credits through vocational and educational programs. They are also excluded from work release programs, the very programs designed to prepare inmates to earn a living lawfully after prison. And to top it off, they are not eligible for parole.
The road to change
Over the years, various bills have been filed to make the state’s drug sentencing laws more effective and fiscally responsible. But Gov. Patrick’s 2009 crime prevention bill, H.4108, marked the first time that a Massachusetts governor had supported drug sentencing reform. This was the critical first step down the road to reform. The Governor’s bill included parole eligibility for both county and state prisoners serving mandatory minimums, along with eligibility for work release. The Senate included the Governor’s sentencing reforms in its 2009 crime bill, S.2220, while the House omitted any such reforms in its 2010 crime bill, H.4712, choosing to focus mainly on another aspect of the Governor’s bill, CORI reform.
The task of reconciling the two differing approaches fell to a conference committee. Under the leadership of Sen. Cynthia Creem and Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty, the committee agreed on a compromise version that limited parole eligibility to county drug offenders. In addition, it set forth three factors that would disqualify a drug offender from being considered for parole: selling drugs to minors, acting as a high level player in the drug offense, or using violence or a weapon in the offense, including the possession of a weapon even if it wasn’t used. The conference committee’s bill, H.2583, was passed by the House and Senate, and then signed into law by Gov. Patrick.
The journey ahead
Many other states are miles ahead of us when it comes to revising costly and ineffective drug sentencing laws. Massachusetts still has a long way to go just to catch up. In the near future, the Legislature needs to extend parole eligibility to drug offenders serving state prison sentences — sentences up to 15 years, even for first time or nonviolent offenses. All drug offenders should have the same access to earned “good conduct” credits and work release programs as other prisoners; there is simply no rational basis for excluding them. Those reforms, however, only address how drug sentences are served. Farther down the road, the Legislature needs to repeal the laws that fill up our prisons with nonviolent offenders in the first place.
The next four years present an exciting opportunity to build upon the reforms championed by the Patrick Administration, as Massachusetts takes its place among the states that have embraced more sensible and effective drug sentencing laws.
Barbara J. Dougan
Massachusetts Project Director
Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM)