The facts on furloughs

IN his speech accepting the Republican nomination, George Bush borrowed the famous line of Sgt. Joe Friday, the crime fighter: ``Just the facts, Ma'am.'' It seems long overdue that we peel away the political rhetoric and indeed examine the facts - the facts about the Massachusetts furlough program which Mr. Bush has targeted as Michael Dukakis's Achilles' heel. Fact: Furloughs are permitted in 45 states.

I recognize that the American public is not too keen on prisoners receiving furloughs, escorted or unescorted. My dispute lies in the singling out of Massachusetts as a state that is ``soft on crime'' and furthermore in identifying Mr. Dukakis as being responsible for the problem.

The furlough system is neither a new correctional approach nor a strategy of only ``East Coast liberals.'' Forty-five states plus the federal government have laws enabling the use of furloughs. Most of these states, furthermore, grant furloughs to first-degree murderers with life sentences. Included among these is Bush's ``home'' state of Texas.

Fact: Michael Dukakis inherited the Massachusetts furlough program from a Republican.

The Massachusetts furlough program had existed since 1972, when it was signed into law by former Gov. Francis Sargent, a Republican. Since 1972, and during the Dukakis administrations, the program had actually been made more restrictive. In 1975, during Dukakis's first term, lifers from walled institutions (medium and maximum security) became no longer eligible for unescorted furloughs. Also in 1981, the minimum time served before furlough eligibility was raised for murderers, and the screening process was tightened as well.

Fact: Massachusetts is tough on murderers.

Bush has repeatedly charged that murderers in Massachusetts are sent out on furlough before they would be paroled in other states.

Not only is this criticism inane, since furloughs are designed to be preparatory to parole, but it is just not true. Nationally, the average time served by murderers before parole is 7 years. To be eligible for furlough in Massachusetts, first-degree murderers had to have served a minimum of 12 years, and second-degree murderers, a minimum of eight years. Even then, enrollment into the furlough program is far from automatic; a very small percentage of those lifers who meet the minimum requirements is approved for the furlough program. Fact: The Massachusetts furlough program works.

The furlough program has considerable merit. Daylong furlough visits help to maintain community and family ties, which are so critical to an inmate's reintegration once he is released from prison. Indeed, Massachusetts Department of Corrections records indicate that prisoners who participated in the furlough program have a significantly lower rate of recidivism, compared with similar inmates not privileged with furloughs, even after controlling for relevant risk factors.

Since in Massachusetts, as in all other states, most offenders including murderers are eventually released, furloughs are valuable both for determining an offender's readiness for parole and for preparing him psychologically for civilian life.

More important than the long-term benefits, the Massachusetts furlough program has had an excellent record in terms of escapes and security. Well over 99 percent of furlough recipients have returned to prison at their assigned times without incident.

The public, however, has ignored the successes and instead has focused on one unfortunate episode in which a prisoner, serving a life sentence for a murder committed during a robbery, fled south while on furlough and terrorized a Maryland couple.

While I do not wish to dismiss the pain suffered by the two victims, this one incident must be placed in context of the millions of serious crimes occurring in this nation each year. One cannot seriously suggest that a ban on furloughs will have any significant impact on the crime problem.

The Massachusetts legislature overreacted, nevertheless, and ``threw the baby out with the bath water.'' Rather than tightening the selection criteria for furloughs for murderers, it swiftly passed a bill banning furloughs for first-degree lifers, a bill which Dukakis, realizing that a veto would be overridden, proceeded to sign.

Fact: The furlough of murderers is a non-issue in the campaign for the presidency.

Street crimes, like murder and rape, fall under state jurisdiction, except in rare instances such as crimes on Indian reservations or federal land. In fact, there are only 108 federal inmates serving time for murder, comprising just one-quarter of 1 percent of the federal prison population.

Thus, the positions of the two candidates on furloughs for murderers are of no relevance to the presidency. Even so, Dukakis, if he's smart, might simply pledge never to furlough a murderer if elected president.

James Alan Fox is a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston.

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