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New expertise sought on Mass. Parole Board

A coalition of prisoners’-rights advocates has called on Governor Deval Patrick to postpone a final appointment to the state Parole Board, so that he can consider someone with lengthy experience treating drug offenders, a class that makes up the majority of people in prison.

The group of advocates, including the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Prisoners’ Legal Services, and the Association for Behavioral Health, also asked the administration to redefine the qualifications for the post, and it called for a new process on screening applicants.

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“We ask the Governor’s office to ensure that the process of filling the vacancy is impartial and results in a candidate who can add a new and much needed dimension of expertise to the Board,” the group said in the letter, which was sent Friday.

Heather Johnson, a spokeswoman for the governor, responded in a statement, “We are fully committed to appointing candidates with a broad range of expertise in a number of issues necessary to the Parole Board’s core mission of giving each individual a fair hearing to determine his or her suitability for parole.”

The Parole Board, which determines whether prisoners are eligible for parole, and then monitors their activity, underwent a significant shake-up in early 2011, following the fatal shooting of Woburn police Officer John Maguire on Dec. 26 2010, by a man who never should have been free on parole, according to a state review.

The shooter, Dominic Cinelli, who had just robbed a jewelry store, was also killed in the exchange of gunfire. Authorities later determined that the Parole Board failed to follow basic protocol in granting parole for Cinelli, a career criminal who had been sentenced to triple life sentences and had a history of crime, including for the shooting of a security guard.

The five board members who voted for Cinelli’s parole resigned at the request of the governor, who remade the board beginning with the appointment of Josh Wall, a former Suffolk County homicide prosecutor, as its chairman.

‘Expertise in substance misuse is necessary.’

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Two other members of the board have since left for unrelated reasons. In total, the governor has appointed two former prosecutors, one defense attorney, a former corrections administrator, a former victim advocate, and a court psychologist to the board.

The Governor’s Council approves nominations to the state Parole Board.

The prisoners’ advocates called on the governor to repost an advertisement for the final vacant position with a request for at least five years of experience in drug and alcohol rehabilitation. According to Department of Correction figures, about 80 percent of state prisoners have some type of substance addiction, the advocates said.

“It is clear that the Commonwealth would be best served by having Parole Board members who are versed in the issues that face those in our prisons,” the advocates said in the letter.

They argued that someone with experience treating alcohol and substance abuse, for instance, would be suited to determine whether someone who violates parole would be eligible for treatment rather than being sent back to prison.

The advocates argued that, “expertise in substance misuse is necessary in making an informed and sensible decision.”

In addition, the advocates questioned the need for the requested five years of experience in business or public administration that was attached to the advertisements for the position, saying the “requirement seems unnecessary and could well be a barrier to attracting qualified candidates for the position.”

The advocates also questioned the application process that requires that applications be sent to Wall, the chairman, rather than an independent reviewer in the governor’s office.

“Such a practice raises questions about the impartiality of the process and runs the risk of inadequately considering the objective needs of the Parole Board,” the advocates said in the letter.

Other advocates who signed on to the letter include the Real Cost of Prisons Project, the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee, and the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.
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