Thousands of all races have taken to the streets, often defying curfew orders, in protests that transcend even the unspeakable crime of George Floyd’s death. Crowds are telling the organs of law enforcement and criminal justice that law has been used to thwart, not achieve, justice and dignity. Even in our progressive state, with a steady governor and a farsighted judiciary, the lesson has not been learned. In a lengthy opinion, the Supreme Judicial Court agreed that there are significant risks to life and health to prison inmates and guards from incarceration in lockdown and close quarters during the pandemic, but the court failed to order release of the hundreds of vulnerable elderly prisoners who pose no risk to public safety.
The justices sent the case to a lower court for further proceedings, in part because officials had acted in line with guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It did not seem to matter that thousands of Americans held in close confinement may have sickened or died in institutions under CDC guidance.
For all our good intentions, the state’s efforts fail at basic humanity. Few have confidence in a Parole Board that seems to specialize in delay. The last three governors combined commuted only a tiny number of sentences. The legacy of Willie Horton still rules.
The writer is a professor at the Northeastern University School of Law.