It’s not how many have been released from prison, but how few
The Globe’s March 15 article — front page, above the fold — screams that 21 convicted murderers have been freed under the state’s compassionate release law (“Compassionate, but to whom?: As 21 murderers receive medical parole, critics and families demand change in law”). Quoting the law’s critics, it suggests that their release ignored their serious offenses, their real medical condition, and the victims’ concerns. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Even before the pandemic, medical parole reflected the Legislature’s recognition that compassionate release was critical. Why? Because we have the highest percentage of prisoners over 55 in the country. Because the cost of housing them is three times that of an average adult prisoner. Because keeping them in prison diverts resources from other programs.
We have more older prisoners not because of an elderly crime wave, but because we lead the country in the percentage of sentences of life without parole. And racial disparities — a scandal throughout the system — are worse for lifers.
The real story is not how many have been released but how few, especially now. Nineteen people have died in state prisons since the coronavirus pandemic’s start, not including those who died after release. The notion that paroling those so debilitated threatens public safety is absurd.
Piling on, there was the gratuitous reference to the release from prison of former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi (disclosure: we both worked on DiMasi’s case). Battling two forms of cancer, DiMasi was released early on an eight-year sentence. The article adds, “More than four years later, DiMasi is now a registered lobbyist,” as if he had gamed the system. No one who saw him in prison, emaciated, barely able to stand, would believe that.
Now, his cancers in remission, his prison term over, he is a lobbyist. Who for? The Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, working on housing for the homeless.
Punishment is one thing; cruelty is another.
Gertner is a retired US district judge, and Reinstein is the former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
Excessive punishment exacts a heavy price from everyone
It is ironic that in this year when the Globe has embraced the idea that Black Lives Matter, reporters once again presented the kind of fear-mongering that drove mass incarceration in the first place. Even the headline “stoked fear,” as Gavi Wolfe, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, tweeted.
Our prisons are overflowing with elderly and sickly prisoners, disproportionately Black and brown, who have already paid a heavy price for their crimes. Was there really no place in the article for more consideration of society’s need to show some compassion and mercy for those with the least among us? Was it intentional that there was no reference to the horrendous conditions in the COVID-19-ravaged tiers?
When Massachusetts has so many who are living in poverty, why was there no mention of the cost savings that would flow from medically paroling more incapacitated people? Once again, the humanity of laws like compassionate release has been twisted in the political interest of proponents of endless punishment.
Codirector, Northeastern University School of Law Prisoners’ Assistance Project
President, Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
This letter was cosigned by representatives of the following advocacy organizations: Committee for Public Counsel Services, Prisoners’ Legal Services, Real Cost of Prisons Project, Coalition for Effective Public Safety, Criminal Justice Policy Coalition, and The F8 Foundation.
Facing the inevitable
Critics are wrong to condemn Massachusetts’ push to release people from prison due to COVID-19.
My fiance is serving a life sentence without parole, so I know incarcerated people contend with something about the pandemic that we on the outside do not: a sense of inevitability. People in prison are far more vulnerable to infection and death caused by the coronavirus because of overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, inadequate access to health care, cleaning supplies, and protective equipment. I knew it was only a matter of time before my fiance contracted the coronavirus, which he eventually did.
Questioning decisions to release elderly, gravely ill, and dying people is callous and inhumane. Indeed, releasing thousands of prisoners infected with COVID-19 would protect the lives of many more incarcerated people.
While people who commit serious crimes must be held accountable, one also has to ask whether ill or dying patients still present a risk to public safety, especially after serving decades in prison. This pandemic provides an opportunity to reconsider the futility of Massachusetts’ most extreme sentences.