SALEM - Twenty years ago, Charles "Chucky" Doucette shot a man in the head and killed him. While out on bail, he committed two home invasions. In 1991, he was sentenced to seven consecutive life terms.
Doucette, 48, was released from Bridgewater State Hospital earlier this month, having convinced the state Parole Board he will not commit any more crimes.
Family members of Raymond Bufalino, Doucette's victim in the 1987 shooting, are outraged.
"A life is a life," said Margaret Spenlinhauer, Bufalino's aunt. "How hard is it to understand that a life sentence should be a life sentence?"
When a person is convicted of second-degree murder, however, a life sentence doesn't always mean life. More than 200 people convicted of second-degree murder have been paroled since 2002, 33 of them last year. Nearly one-third of "lifers" who sought parole last year got it, and one in five, like Doucette, won parole on their first try.
Doucette is one of a number of high-profile North Shore murder cases that have brought the issue of parole back to the headlines. Last fall, Thomas Maimoni, convicted of second-degree murder in the death of Martha Brailsford in Salem Harbor, was denied parole. Susan Biancardi, a Beverly mother who pleaded guilty to shooting her 16-year-old daughter, is awaiting a decision on parole after a hearing last month.
So how does the Parole Board make a decision about who gets parole?
The board is supposed to base its decisions on two primary factors: the risk of reoffending and whether the release will compromise the welfare of society.
"They're not supposed to retry the case," said Peabody's Mary Ellen Manning, a member of the Governor's Council, which votes on appointments to the Parole Board. "But that's what's happening."
During highly emotional hearings, board members hear wrenching testimony from victims' families and from the offenders, often relying on facts that would never have been admitted at trial, Manning believes.
"They're in a position to sit as an uber-jury," she said.
While Manning was not familiar with all of the details of the Doucette case, she said it sounds from their decision as though there is some dispute among board members as to which version of the killing they accept.
Four members seem to believe Doucette's claim that the shooting was an accident, she said, while two others who opposed parole characterized it as a "particularly heinous" crime that Doucette continues to minimize, despite his guilty plea. Those members point to Doucette's low score on a risk assessment a year before his Parole Board hearing.
"It is very troubling that the Parole Board is going to presume to know better than the judge or jury (what happened)," Manning said.
Furloughs, Willie Horton and backlash
While some, like Bufalino's family, are troubled by the willingness of the state to grant parole to lifers, others defend its use for those convicted of violent crimes such as murder. Inside the state's prisons and jails, those who have little or no prospect of winning parole have less incentive to take part in drug treatment, anger management programs or classes - or even to simply behave themselves - while behind bars.
"Certainly, one of the purposes of incarceration is to punish," Parole Board Chairman Maureen Walsh said. "But another purpose is to rehabilitate the offender and address those factors that caused an offender to commit a crime."
State parole rates have fluctuated, sometimes dramatically, from decade to decade.
In the 1970s and '80s, during an era of prison reform, parole and similar programs like furloughs were widely granted.
Then came the case of Willie Horton, convicted of stabbing a 17-year-old gas station clerk to death in 1974. Despite his life sentence for murder, Horton was repeatedly given furloughs from prison. During his 10th such furlough, he disappeared, kidnapped a Maryland couple, raped the woman and stabbed the man.
Furloughs disappeared, and throughout the 1990s parole rates plummeted. At the time, Gov. Bill Weld, a former prosecutor, took a hard line, at one point proposing the elimination of parole. His appointees to the Parole Board, and those of his successor, Paul Cellucci, shared this view.
Between 1990 and 1991, the year Chucky Doucette was sentenced, the parole rate dropped from 61 percent to 45 percent, and it stayed below 50 percent throughout the decade. At one point, in 1993, only 38 percent of prisoners who applied for parole got it.
Also during the 1990s, legislation called "Truth in Sentencing" was passed. Prior to 1994, the actual amount of time served was often significantly different from the sentence that a judge announced in the courtroom.
"I'd give someone 15 to 20, and he'd be out in five," said retired Judge Robert Barton, who was appointed by Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1978.
Inmates would become eligible for parole after serving as little as one-third of the minimum number of years on their sentence. And on top of that, there was credit for "good time" - an inmate could shave as much as 21 days a month off his sentence - "which was ridiculous," Barton said.
He said the truth in sentencing law was a welcome change.
But the crackdown on parole and sentencing reform had an unintended consequence - while fewer people were being released from jail, more of those being released were re-offending.
The recidivism rate rose dramatically. A Boston Bar Association study released in 2002 found that 44 percent of people being released from prison were returning to jail within three years.
More than half of those being released were inmates who had "wrapped up" their sentence - they had served the full term, without getting parole - and were then being released directly to the streets without supervision or assistance.
They had little incentive to stay out of trouble - there was no balance of a sentence hanging over their head, no possibility of going back to jail unless they were caught committing a new crime.
"Like it or not, the most dangerous offenders, generally, are those who are unsupervised, untreated and, in the case of sex offenders, unclassified," Walsh said. "We don't know their whereabouts, can't offer treatment or employment, and can't make sure they're drug- and alcohol-free and abiding by the law."
Recidivism has dropped
Between 2000 and 2001, the parole rate climbed back up to 65 percent, and the recidivism rate dropped. Currently, it's at about 20 percent - meaning one in five parolees fail on parole.
According to the Parole Board, while 14 percent of "lifers" paroled between 2002 and 2005 violated their parole, only three of them had committed new crimes. Others were found in violation for such things as failing a drug test or not reporting to a parole officer.
Because they're on parole, it's easier to return them to custody - a parole officer need only show it's more likely than not that a violation occurred to send someone back to prison.
It's a cost-effective way of supervising offenders who may no longer need to be locked up to protect public safety, Walsh said. While it costs an average of $35,000 a year to incarcerate someone, it costs roughly $5,000 to keep someone on parole.
And there are new technologies that make it easier to supervise parolees, such as electronic monitoring and GPS systems.
The board has made some efforts to better explain its decisions. While Walsh defended the board's practice of secret votes, citing concerns about safety of individual members, she said the board recently began preparing more detailed decisions, as it did in the Doucette case.
Still, it's not a perfect system, she acknowledges. Board members ultimately have to rely on their own judgment.
And, she said, there are some inmates who are not, and probably never will be, fit to live in society.
"Sometimes the system is not fair," Barton said. "It's run by human beings, and we as human beings, make mistakes."