The State Parole Board serves as one of the gatekeepers of the criminal justice system, especially on thorny issues of pardons and commutations. But what happens if that “gate” is perpetually locked? What if petitions for gubernatorial clemency just keep piling up in some never-ending inbox — the pleas unheard, the cases in legal limbo, neither denied nor moved along to the governor’s desk?
At a time when social justice and racial justice are at the forefront of both the state and national agendas, one of the few avenues for righting wrongs and for giving people a second chance remains unused, virtually abandoned by the seven people charged with administering the system.
Some 267 petitions for pardons or commutations have been filed since Governor Charlie Baker took office in 2015. The Advisory Board of Pardons — as the Parole Board is called when it meets on such petitions — has not held a hearing on any of them.
That is, in a word, shameful. It’s also a direct contradiction of everything that Baker said in his Executive Clemency Guidelines issued just last February.
“The Governor views commutation both as an extraordinary remedy and as an integral part of the correctional process,” Baker’s document says. “It is intended to serve as a strong motivation for confined persons to utilize available resources for self-development and self-improvement and as an incentive for them to become law-abiding citizens and return to society.”
Behind those numbers are real flesh-and-blood human beings — like William J. Allen, whose case was written about on these pages recently.
His commutation petition has been pending since 2017. Allen, then age 20, was convicted of participating in a 1994 robbery during which a drug dealer was stabbed and died. The actual killer accepted a plea deal, served his time, and was released in 2009. But under the doctrine of felony murder — a doctrine since narrowed by the courts — Allen was convicted of first-degree murder.
If commutation is as critical to good corrections process as Baker’s guidelines say, why have dozens of petitions languished in the dead zone that is the governor’s own Parole Board? Baker has now appointed or reappointed six of its seven members.
Similarly gubernatorial pardons — which wipe the slate clean for former offenders — can remove barriers to jobs and housing. They are not sought or given lightly — President Trump’s wholly inappropriate use of his clemency powers being the rare exception to that rule. Some 188 such petitions have been filed since 2015. Number of hearings? Zero.
The governor’s new guidelines are not for the faint of heart. They are detailed, with a new emphasis on restorative justice, and they are tough — with good reason.
A 2008 decision by the Parole Board to free Dominic Cinelli, who in 2010 shot and killed a Woburn police officer in a shootout in which he was also killed, resulted in a general housecleaning of the board by then-Governor Deval Patrick.
Of course, the Cinelli decision wasn’t a commutation but a straight-up community supervision decision for a guy who had been serving three life sentences. Still, it sent a chill throughout the system that is being felt a decade later.
Commutations and pardons, by contrast, if approved by the Advisory Board of Pardons, then go to the governor and, if he approves it, to the Governor’s Council. During his eight years in office, Patrick approved one commutation and four pardons.
During her January 2019 confirmation hearing before the Governor’s Council, board chair Gloriann Moroney, a former Suffolk County prosecutor, said that between 240 and 250 commutation and pardon petitions had not yet been acted on by the board.
“We have not had the resources to do anything other than what we have done,” she insisted, blaming an earlier $3 million budget cut for staffing issues and a morale problem.
That was more than 18 months ago. Number of pardon or commutation hearings held since? Zero.
“In May, the Board affirmatively notified every person seeking a pardon or commutation of the updated clemency guidelines, providing a renewed opportunity for all pending petitioners to submit new information for the Board’s consideration,” according to a statement from the Executive Office of Public Safety.
The board is earning a well-deserved reputation for dysfunction and delay — delay that in the age of COVID-19 has put inmates further at risk. Even the state’s Supreme Judicial Court took note of the fact recently that some 300 inmates already approved for release from the state’s prisons hadn’t actually been paroled in a timely fashion.
There is a point at which Parole Board dysfunction — its inability even to hold hearings on clemency petitions is certainly evidence of that — becomes an issue for the entire criminal justice system. The Parole Board is making a mockery of the clemency process — and the governor who ultimately presides over it has an obligation to tell them to fix it.
Clarification: A previous version of this editorial stated that the courts had “abandoned” the doctrine of felony murder; it’s more precise to say they narrowed the doctrine.
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