SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Local News

March 30, 2011

State official: Merge parole, probation to head off crisis

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.

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