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The Status of Commutation and Parole in Massachusetts


By intern - Posted on 20 June 2012

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On the afternoon of May 16 there was a well-attended forum entitled “The Status of Commutation and Parole in Massachusetts” at the Harvard Law School.  The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute of the Harvard University School of Law organized the event.  Community Change, Inc. was one of the sponsors.

Below is a summary of the event.

PLEASE NOTE:  This is only a quick synopsis of what took place on this great day! 

 
The Status of Commutation and Parole in Massachusetts (MA)
Charles Hamilton Houston Institute – Harvard University
May 16, 2012    3-7 pm
 
Attendees:
Over 100 individuals attended, representing academia, families of victims, families and friends of inmates, former prisoners, former/current members of the MA Parole Board, law firms, advocacy groups, businesses and the media.  
 
Welcome – Mel King (former Director of the Urban League of Greater Boston, former State Representative, and retired MIT Professor of Urban Studies and Planning) graciously opened this event, and participants identified themselves and shared why they attended. 
 
The State of Commutation in MA – Gavi Wolfe (ACLU staff attorney) outlined ways MA citizens could “uncouple the guidelines” from a Governor’s determination.  He suggested when the Board makes one decision and the Governor denies, then the Governor should issue an opinion about the denial.  In addition, Gavi suggested the Parole Board should have a very diverse stakeholder membership and not consist solely of prosecution types as it currently does.  Many others expressed that if the parole board has former prosecutors, then there should also be former defense attorneys, and maybe even former prisoners.  Who knows better than those who have gone through the process?  This thought extended to working in re-entry programs.  Who knows better about re-entry than those who have had to re-enter? 

Commutation:  A Case Study – Margaret Burnham (Northeastern University Law Professor, former MA judge, former partner in Boston civil rights law firms, former International Commission of Human Rights member, and a civil/human rights activist) outlined the personal and commutation history of Arnold King, incarcerated for over 40 years.  Professor Burnham highlighted the strength and courage that Governors have shown across the country by their granting pardons to lifers.  She advised that Arnold King is an international human rights issue and that in no other place in the world would he still be a prisoner.

This section was very informative and gave me insight into commutation in MA.  Mr King has applied for commutation seven times since 1987.  In 2006, he applied for the sixth time.  The parole board voted unanimously to recommend his sentence be commuted.  Governor Patrick denied the commutation anyway.  Mr. King applied again in 2010 but the board voted 5-4 against commuting his sentence.  What changed in that time?  Mr. King had only continued to do more good work.  However, a man who was out on parole shot and killed a police officer.  Subsequently, some of the people who sat on the parole board left, and the new board showed close scrutiny and a lack of courage.  Professor Burnham closed by noting that people who commit a crime are stigmatized from 'the time they offend until the end.'

 

This stigma undermines ideas about rehabilitation and restorative justice.  Commutation does not forgive a crime but reduces a sentence; in essence it recognizes the crime but acknowledges that people are redeemable.  It is a legal process that was “created for the promotion and execution of redemptive and restorative justice.”  In a time where the legislature is considering punitive ‘three strikes’ style legislation, prisons in MA are overcrowded at an average rate of 144%, and no one in MA has had a sentence commuted since 1997 it is clear that we need to make a move towards restorative justice.

 

 

Panel I – Commutation and Parole through the Years:   Charles Ogletree (Harvard Law Professor and Founder/Executive Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute) facilitated this panel consisting of (Josh Wall, current Board Chairman; Sheila Hubbard, former Board Chair; Robert Gittens, former Board Chair; Candace Kochin, former Board Member; and Pamela Lombardini, former Board Member).  After sharing in general how decisions happen on the MA Parole Board, an intensive question and answer with the audience occurred.  Such questions were “why would the Board deny a commutation when the District Attorney states an inmate should be released” to “how does the Board feel as a professional body after providing a unanimous decision for commutation and the Governor denies their recommendation.”  The only criteria according to the current chair Josh Wall, to be on the parole board, is that each member has to be in agreement with the notion of parole.  They must agree that prisoners should be given parole.

 

 

All of the panelists claimed the parole board considers each person as an individual.  However, after listening to the panel discuss parole and commutation 'through the years' it became clear that political circumstances effect the decisions.  The push to be “tough on crime” and the attack on rehabilitation affected the number of commutations and paroles.  Gittens (board member 1986-1992) even noted that on the governor’s level parole and commutation – literally an individual’s fate – are always political.  In addition, the number of prisoners serving state  sentencees “paroled to the street decreased by 58% from 1,028 in 2010" - the year the man on parole shot and killed an officer - "to 435 in 2011”(http://www.mass.gov/eopss/docs/doc/research-reports/misc-reports/fourthqtr2011report.pdf).
 
As the last comment, Robert Gittens said he hopes this is the beginning of a dialogue on commutation and parole.  Despite this hope and the insistent claims that they all believe in parole, none of the current or former parole board members stayed for the remaining two panels of the forum.

 

 

Panel II – The Need for Commutation Through the Eyes of Victims and Former Prisoners:  Andrea James (Executive Director of Families for Justice as Healing) facilitated this panel consisting of Tina Williams (University of MA masters degree in social work, works with homeless women, and a parolee since 1993); Gayle Hall (community activist with background in paralegal work, and HIV and Human Services Research);  Jamie Bissonette (ME Indian Tribal State Commission, American Friends Service Committee Healing Justice Program Coordinator, and Louis Brown Peace Institute Board Member); Hasan Smith (former prisoner who later became a prison guard, recently ran for Sheriff of Suffolk County, and describes himself as a former juvenile delinquent); and Milton Jones (father of murder victim).  This panel shared a variety of perspectives from “building a family life while working for the homeless and being in constant fear of going back into prison on a minor infraction” to “how a lifer changed a juvenile delinquent’s attitude towards positive goals” to “how people change and deserve another opportunity”, to a father’s unbelievable but gracious understanding of “when you are young you can make bad decisions that deserve redemption”.  A member of this panel shared that in actuality the MA Board was holding families of victims hostage by bringing inmates back to the Board on multiple occasions reliving the crime each time.
For me, this panel exemplified the possibilities for rehabilitation and foregiveness.
Panel III – The Future of Commutation in MA:  Elizabeth Matos (Staff Attorney Prisoners' Legal Services) facilitated and presented on this panel along with Patricia Garin (civil rights attorney, President of the Board of Directors of MA Prisoner’s Legal Services, Adjunct Professor at Northeastern University Law School) and Bob Romanow (Boston businessman and seller of furniture and books, who hires parolees).  This panel shared the plight of older, sick, and dying inmates in MA; the statistics of young people (ages 15-18) incarcerated for life without possibility of parole compared to research showing your brain is not fully developed until the age of 25; and the frustrations of hiring lifers, who are great workers, yet they can be pulled off the streets and re-incarcerated for minor infractions.

 

Elizabeth Matos talked about the need for medical parole in MA.  In addition to the moral imperatives, it can cost $100,000 a year to house elderly and sick prisoners.  While some of the parole board members talked about how difficult it is to predict human behavior, Elizabeth noted, it is much easier to predict the behavior of sick and physically disabled prisoners.  Plus there is a precedent set by the 36 states that already have medical parole.

There was a bill introduced in MA called An Act to Provide for Medical Release of Inmates (SB 1213, sponsored by Pat Jehlen) that called for the parole of prisoners that “are incapable of presenting a threat to themselves or others."  The bill recently died in committee.
 
The panel turned into a discussion, as the audience and panelists reflected on the changes that need to be made.
Next Steps:  This event was educational, informative, and well received by the panelists and participants.  Most people advised this was a good start for an open dialogue on these concerns and agreed the discussion needs to continue. 
One of the main points in next steps was to find a way to bring the current board into compliance with commutation. They say they are for parole? As for commutation, not one African American sentence has been commuted since 1985.
In addition, the Coalition for Effective Public Safety.  If you want to get involved you can contact Elizabeth Matos by phone, 617-482-2773 x105, or email, lmatos@plsma.org.
 
At the root, supporting commutation and certain parole reforms really shows a belief that people can change and shifts the focus from punitive measures to restorative justice.  This forum revealed some of the political and systemic barriers to progress but also made clear that rehabilitation and forgiveness are possible and suggested changes that need to be made.

 

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