Today I went to a lifer parole hearing in Massachusetts, billed as the ultimate opportunity for second chances. But as so often happens, I left feeling that the person seeking parole will not get a shot to serve the rest of his sentence in the community. In other words, his original crime will defeat his transformation, and his missteps will be held against him in a way that those of us not on parole will never experience in our lifetimes.
In the free world, if you are a recovering alcoholic and you take a drink, say because your mother died or your best friend was stabbed, you’ll most likely deal with that misstep on your own, with your family, or with your AA buddies. But if you’re hopeing for parole, and you take a drink, say because your mother died or your best friend was stabbed, you’ll be considered a “risk to reoffend.” Even if you realize you’ve made a mistake, and even if you take some action to correct it, you’ve committed a crime and are always under suspicion and surveillance. Some of this we can understand, but is there always a direct connection from such missteps to a propensity for acts of violence?
A person petitioning for parole has to be more perfect than the average citizen in order to earn early release.
Forgiveness is certainly not in the realm of Parole Board mandates, and instead of restorative justice, it is most likely that conditions and time will be imposed. The idea of reparations and community justice seem far from the rooms where the fate of these men and women are decided. In our system of punishment, parole hopefuls are often kept in prison and given minimal direction during the one, two, three, four, or five years before they can see the Parole Board again. They do “programs.” They avoid “disciplinary” infractions. If they are lucky, their families can afford phone calls or make time to visit. This is all in the name of public safety.
All of this was floating around inside me as I confronted the June 26th article that appeared in The Boston Globe. It referenced the letter that the Coalition for Effective Public Safety (CEPS) sent to Governor Charles Baker about the current state of parole and the needed executive actions to improve a flailing system. That letter is reprinted here on my website.
The article left me as lonely as the parole hearing did, and left me wanting so much more for our men and women seeking second chances. It did what is so often done: took an infamous story, a tragedy that always stirs up its audience to stop listening to the facts about parole and focus on the fabled horrors. A violent anecdote lives on a lot longer than small successful steps of a person on parole — or hard cold facts.
But the facts are, as CEPS wrote in its letter, our paroling rate in Massachusetts is low despite the reality that “parole improves public safety, lowers prison populations, reduces recidivism, improves outcomes for parolees, and saves taxpayer money.” As I spelled out for Boston Magazine in 2013, parole is an imperfect system, and there will be mistakes. We are human and parole is a system created by humans. But if we do not provide more second chances to allow people to finish their time in the community, we are dooming justice. The more people we keep behind bars, the more we continue to fuel the engine of mass incarceration. And so, we must be thoughtful risk-takers.
Why then did CEPS write to Governor Baker, at this particular moment in time? We need him to be a thoughtful risk-taker, to step out of his comfort zone, and to recognize what 45 groups are saying about the state of parole: It needs to be better. CEPS asks him to step up and pay attention to the fact that serious parole reform needs to happen, and that some of it can happen with his executive actions. We don’t always need the Legislature to create new laws. Some change is in his hands.
He can affect parole by helping to correct the composition of the Parole Board. Currently there is only one substance use and mental health specialist, Dr. Charlene Bonner, and she needs to be reappointed since her term has expired. (Parole Board members actually keep serving even after their term expires until they are renominated or not reappointed.) Governor Baker can do that immediately.
As the letter says, he can also fill upcoming vacancies with more “psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists and social workers who believe in parole and are committed to paroling people with disabilities that can be successfully managed in the community.” We already have plenty of people from a Corrections background but we are short on those who have the expertise or the previous job experience focused on those with mental health issues and substance use disorders. These are many of the people who come before them. Family trauma is compounded by prison trauma, and that needs to be seen, evaluated, and deeply understood. How can the Board effectively judge those who come before them without more of this expertise?
Governor Baker can insist that Parole Board members read the petitions for commutation that come before them — they seem not to have responded to these for more than 2 years — and insist that they act on a number of applications to take worthy petitioners off lifetime parole. He can insist that his Board do its job to better train parole officers so they are not just checking off boxes but counseling people and helping them find work. The model now seems to be “trail them, nail them and jail them.” As a parolee who shall remain nameless told me about some parole officers: “They are harassing people in their own homes, calling our family members and asking them for information, refusing our requests to go out of state for conferences or to visit family, and telling us ‘Sorry, I don’t have time to read your Fill in the Blank.’”
Governor Baker can improve the transparency of how the Parole Board functions. The Board has an almost unreadable website where it is impossible to find information. It consistently reports “paroling rate” (its vote rate) instead of the percentage of parole applicants who are actually released on parole. He can insist that his Parole Board not take 9 months to a year to get decisions for lifer parolees written. As the letter says, this translates into a “lack of respect” for parolees and their families.
A thoughtful risk-taker is not a foolish risk-taker. But Governor Baker received this letter also because Massachusetts is not thoughtfully setting up many of its life-sentenced prisoners to succeed. Note the antique Department of Correction classification system that we still have whereby many lifers cannot easily move to lower security facilities until they earn parole. Thus, some languish on waiting lists to get into programs that would help them earn parole. The letter points out that the Governor can and should advocate for improvements that the Council of State Governments (CSG) recommended when it evaluated our system in 2016, stating, “One of the first steps in successful re-entry is for the prisoner to step down through security levels in the prison system.”
Parole is not a side issue to justice. Perhaps that is why I have been to approximately 30 lifer hearings (the public is not permitted to attend non-lifer hearings). I have no idea what will happen to the man I saw plead his case before the Board at today’s hearing. Most likely, if things go as they have been going, I will have to wait almost a year to see his decision posted on the Board’s website.
But Governor Baker could change so much of this with a stroke of his pen. He could indeed, with executive action, improve this system. Perhaps it should be a requirement in state law that the Governor attend such hearings so that he knows first-hand why 45 groups say that they want change.
Jean Trounstine is a writer, activist, and professor whose most recent book is Boy With A Knife: The Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice.