Hugh McQuaid photo

Some have called Sen. Andrew Roraback’s plan to amend a bill repealing the death penalty with a provision to rollback an inmate early release program—a political calculation. But on Monday a group of crime victims thanked him for it.

Roraback, a Republican who is running for Congress, has historically supported efforts to repeal the death penalty. But this year is different.

This year he will try to amend the bill with a provision to repeal an early release program passed by the legislature last year. Unless lawmakers vote to scrap the early-release program, he will vote against repealing the death penalty.

He caught criticism for the decision from Lisa Wilson-Foley, one of his opponents in the Congressional race, who accused him of bargaining his principles for political gains.

“Keeping the death penalty is a serious matter and it shouldn’t become a political trading card. You are either for it or against it,” she said in a press release.

Justin Bernier, another Republican candidate in the race, joined in on criticizing Roraback for coming up with the trade.

“I never thought a politician would try to play both sides of the death penalty issue until Andrew Roraback’s press conference today,” Bernier said in a statement. “A candidate who won’t take a clear position on this black-and-white issue is not ready to lead in Congress.”

But Roraback’s attention to the Earned Risk Reduction Credit program was comforting to a group of crime victims and victim family members he met with on Monday.

The program allows inmates the opportunity to come up for parole hearing sooner if they participate in programs aimed at reducing the likelihood they’ll return to prison. An inmate can shave as many as five days a month off their prison sentences by participating.

Lee and Patrick DeGrosse said they only learned of the program when the Correction Department sent them a letter in September informing them that Robert Gargliardo, their daughter’s murderer, had earned credits.

It wasn’t welcome news. The couple said that after the 1996 murder they agreed to accept a plea bargain that allowed Gargliardo, 44, to cop to manslaughter and a 27-and-a-half-year sentence. The only reason they said they agreed to the lesser sentence was to avoid putting their four-year-old grandson on the witness stand. They said the possibility of him getting parole parole sooner than that wasn’t fair.

“They promised us,” Lee DeGrosse said.

Roraback told the group of families and victims he’s always felt the state should not be in the business of taking a life, but said he feels just as strongly it should not be breaking promises to crime victims.

“That is why in this legislative session, as the legislature debates the death penalty, I’m going to make sure that at the same time that debate is conducted, we call to the fore what all of you are experiencing because of the lie we passed last May,” he said.

Roraback said his amendment will either repeal the program altogether or modify it so high-risk and violent offenders are ineligible. 

However Michael P. Lawlor, the governor’s undersecretary for criminal justice, argues those are exactly the type of people who should be in programs designed to keep them from hurting people again.

“If you’re going to pick a group of inmates you didn’t want to recidivate, you would start with violent offenders I would assume,” he said in a phone interview.

Lawlor said that the credits don’t ensure an inmate is released early, they only allow them to be up for a parole hearing sooner. During those hearings victims and families are given an opportunity to testify and the board can decide not to release them, he said.

“I’m not aware of any violent offender who’s been released without serving 85 percent of their sentence,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s actually quite unlikely.”

For instance, the law was passed retroactively to 2006 so Gargliardo has earned 200 credits, about half of what he was eligible to earn. That means he can go before the parole board 200 days earlier, but the DeGrosses could testify against his release.

Besides, Lawlor said it wouldn’t change the credits that have already been applied to inmates’ sentences.

“There’s nothing the legislature can do now that can undo what it did last year,” he said last month. “I understand people have different emotional and philosophical points of view but as a legal matter you can’t do it.”

Roraback disagreed but acknowledged an inmate whose credits have been revoked could challenge the decision in court. He suspected the courts would side with the victims.

“If the state can break its word with someone, keeping faith with victims is more important than keeping faith with convicts,” he said.

But Lawlor said there’s also future victims to consider. Treatment for violent offenders may mean some potential victim doesn’t get hurt down the road, Lawlor said.