Massachusetts needs dramatic changes in its corrections system to prevent a crisis, according to the Patrick administration.
"We are in a pre-crisis stage now, but there is still time to act," said former public safety secretary Kevin Burke, who accompanied current Secretary of Public Safety and Security Mary Heffernan during a visit with The Salem News editorial board Monday.
The problems, they said, are an ever-increasing prison population and dwindling space and funds to manage it.
Under Gov. Deval Patrick's proposed state budget, "I will have to close two prisons based on the (dollar) number I was given," Heffernan said. "We're not going to let people out of prison, we will need to find beds."
A recent study of Massachusetts' corrections system revealed that, by 2020, the state will need 8,000 new prison beds if inmate populations rise at the current rate, said Burke, a former longtime Essex County district attorney.
"We cannot build our way out of this problem," he said. "If the Legislature takes the short view here ... we'll be releasing people because there are not enough beds."
Heffernan is traveling the state meeting with media outlets, legislators and other public officials to promote three bills proposed by Patrick that she says will go a long way toward fixing some of the fiscal and structural issues facing the corrections system.
The plan has two central components: reforming the way the state deals with offenders on supervised release and changing laws to keep low-level, nonviolent drug offenders out of jail, while making it harder for repeat violent offenders to get out.
The most controversial part is Patrick's proposal to merge probation and parole departments to create one uber-agency called the Department of Re-Entry and Community Supervision. The parole department, which handles releasing and supervising inmates, currently resides under the executive branch, while probation, which is a community supervision system in lieu of prison, is managed under the judiciary branch of government. The new Department of Re-Entry would be run under Patrick's executive branch.
Both Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo have come out against the proposal, saying they prefer to keep probation under the judiciary. Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland and the Massachusetts Bar Association have also been outspoken critics of the move.
Judges and probation officials work closely when it comes to sentencing, and the "trust and loyalty in that bond" would be severed if the probation officials worked for the governor, not the judiciary, said Martin Healy, the chief legal counsel for the bar association. Administrations come and go and could impose new criminal sentencing philosophies that could "filter down into the courthouse and color the decisions judges make," and could perhaps "result in conflict within local courthouses," he said.
State Rep. John Keenan, D-Salem, a former Essex County assistant district attorney under Burke, is also against a probation/parole merger.
"Clearly there are some transparency issues that need to be dealt with, but I don't think the solution is necessarily to put probation in the executive branch," he said yesterday. "The probation officer and judge have a very close and special relationship, and it could make it a little more difficult."
Any administrative inefficiencies or issues with transparency "can be dealt with without switching probation from one branch to another," he said.
Heffernan scoffed at the idea that judges and probation officials would be at odds if probation came under the executive purview.
"They are professionals," she said.
Merging the two agencies would eliminate duplicative services, save money, provide a more cohesive system for offenders and create much more transparency in the probation system, which often hides behind exceptions in the public record laws, Heffernan said. The probation department's record keeping and "obstructionism" are so bad, Burke said, that during a recent audit, the administration could not even figure out how many people are in the system, or how many employees the department has.
"Judges don't look at the big picture, or the picture as a whole. I'm not faulting them; it's not the role they are intended to fulfill," Burke said. "They can't manage it as part of the whole. They are going to do their own thing."
Legislators, lawyers and judges have been more receptive, however, to the governor's other proposals, which would eliminate minimum sentencing laws for nonviolent drug crimes and make violent criminals serve longer minimum sentences.
"They are interested because of the budgetary issues. We're closer than we have seen," Burke said, adding that similar proposals have been ignored in the past.
The proposed laws are at least partially in response to the death of Woburn police officer John Maguire, who while trying to foil a robbery attempt was shot four times by paroled career criminal Dominic Cinelli.
The new law would make it easier for offenders to be classified as "habitual criminals" and would mandate that those criminals serve at least two-thirds of the maximum sentence in prison before becoming eligible for parole. Now, they are required to serve only half.
The Massachusetts Bar Association lauded the effort to keep dangerous criminals in prison longer, but is skeptical, said Healy, who has testified on the new bill.
"The devil is in the details. It really all depends on how we define a habitual criminal and for what types of offenses," he said. "In certain instances, we feel the governor's bill goes too far. ... We are working to craft something that strikes a fine balance."
But in addition to providing less opportunity for murderers to get out of jail, the measures are also designed to save money by putting more nonviolent offenders on supervised release, Heffernan said.
According to the secretary, it costs about $7,500 per year to supervise a low-level offender who has been released on parole or probation. To incarcerate the offender, it costs about $35,000 in a county jail or $48,000 in a state prison.
"We have an opportunity from bad budgetary times to take a real hard look at how we're spending public safety dollars," she said. "Now is the time to act."