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Advocates argue for more diverse state parole board

Two civil rights advocates argued Wednesday against the reappointment of state parole board member Lucy Soto-Abbe, saying she is wrong for the panel because of her background as a longtime victim witness advocate and tendency to deny parole.

Addressing the Governor’s Council, attorneys Patricia Garin and Leslie Walker said they would like to see more candidates like Tonomey Coleman, a criminal defense attorney. He was nominated to the board earlier this month, along with Soto-Abbe, by Governor Deval Patrick.

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“We need to have a more diverse parole board with people on it that are going to stand up and think of some creative things to do to change this system,” said Garin, the co-director of The Prisoners Assistance Project at Northeastern University Law School, during Soto-Abbe’s reappointment hearing at the State House.

Soto-Abbe, 41, of Springfield, a victim witness advocate for the Hampden district attorney’s office for 17 years, was narrowly appointed to the Massachusetts Parole Board in 2011 amid ashakeup. She is now seeking a full four-year term.

Garin also spoke against ­Soto-Abbe’s initial appointment, when Patrick replaced five members of the parole board who had voted for Dominic Cinelli’s early release on parole.

Cinelli had been serving three life sentences on assault and robbery convictions when he was granted parole in 2009. Four months later, he killed Woburn police Officer John McGuire during an attempted robbery.

On Wednesday, Soto-Abbe responded to her critics by saying that given her experience, education, and background, she has learned to “be fair and judge people by all the facts.”

“I continue to believe that the integrity of the parole process is centered on our ability to give each offender a fair hearing to determine their suitability for parole,” she told the council.

“When I conduct these hearings, I do show a level of empathy. I believe I am fair, objective, impartial . . . I give fair hearings,” she said.

The prisoner advocates contend that the board’s current makeup has dramatically driven down the number of parole releases in the last two years to approximately 26 percent of those eligible.

Garin and Walker, the executive director of Prisoner’s Legal Services, presented the council with a 19-page report titled “The Current State of Parole in Massachusetts”and are calling for parole board candidates who have backgrounds in criminal defense and drug and alcohol abuse prevention.

Prisoner advocates said that because 97 percent of all prisoners in the state are eventually released, it makes more sense to grant parole at a higher rate because early release comes with conditions such as drug abuse treatment.

When prisoners serve out their sentences behind bars, they are more likely to re-offend than parolees, the advocates argued.

In addition to Soto-Abbe, there are three former prosecutors on the board, a former Department of Correction administrator, and a former court forensics psychologist.

Coleman was nominated for an open position.

Coleman appeared relaxed during his interview, but struggled with two questions from the council — on the criteria he would use to evaluate a prisoner’s readiness for parole and on the addictive effects of heroin.

Coleman, who lives in Boston and has been practicing law for 15 years, said he would consider an inmate’s education level, family circumstances, whether drugs played a factor in the inmate’s crime, and their mental health.

A council member asked: “What about their time as an inmate, would you consider that?

Coleman replied, “Yes, I would certainly consider that.”

The council will vote on both candidates during a regular meeting next Wednesday.

Brian Ballou can be reached at bballou@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @globeballou.
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