In an exceedingly rare but little-noted event, late last month, the Governor’s Council rejected Governor Charlie Baker’s latest nominee for the state Parole Board.
In doing so, some on the eight-member elected council used the moment to criticize the board itself and the way it has slow-rolled the entire pardon and commutation process — the only exit ramp the prison system has for addressing either an unjust sentence or for acknowledging those inmates who have spent decades within the walls trying to make amends.
Councilor Paul DePalo noted that the seven-member panel, which also serves as the Advisory Board of Pardons, has only held two commutation hearings in the past six years. He called that a “failure” that “perpetuates injustice.”
Councilor Eileen Duff simply called the board “inept and incompetent” for not approving more releases and acting on more pardons.
In fact, the board has received some 240 petitions for clemency since Baker has been in office. According to the department, 213 individual petitions (some prisoners have filed multiple petitions) remain active, including 21 petitions filed this year.
“I want to see a nominee who’s well-versed in the present board’s function and has a vision for how it can improve,” said Paul DePalo, one of five votes to reject Sherquita HoSang of Springfield for the job.
HoSang, a current member of the Sex Offender Registry Board and former juvenile probation officer, is also married to a Springfield police officer. The Parole Board job has been vacant since March.
The council has long criticized the makeup of the board as being heavily weighted with those coming from law enforcement. Of the six current members, one is a former prosecutor and three have backgrounds in law enforcement or corrections.
In a report issued last spring, the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Clemency Task Force suggested the board be expanded to nine members and the governor, in making his appointments, “should strive to represent the different community perspectives across the Commonwealth.”
The task force also wrote, “The right to request clemency is not a meaningful remedy unless people are afforded the opportunity to have their cases heard and decided within a reasonable amount of time. Petitioners who filed applications years ago are still waiting for hearings.”
The failure of the board to grant timely hearings — or any hearings — further skews the system.
“A lot of the petitions are done pro se [by the inmate himself without a lawyer],” said attorney Patty DeJuneas in an interview. DeJuneas, who represented William Allen, whose commutation case was heard in June, added, “Very few lawyers want to get involved in something with so little chance of success.”
Among those testifying in Allen’s favor was Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz, who told the board, “This is one of those rare cases where a sentence of first-degree murder warrants reconsideration.”
Cruz’s office prosecuted Allen in 1997 for a 1994 robbery in which Purvis Bester was killed. The man charged with the actual killing pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was paroled more than a decade ago. Allen was charged under the state’s “joint venture” doctrine, which has since been modified by a 2017 decision by the Supreme Judicial Court.
“Principles of fairness and equity require that we take this into account when considering whether Allen’s sentence remains a just outcome in this case,” Cruz said.
The board has yet to issue a decision in the case.
In the only other commutation hearing held during the Baker administration, the board did vote unanimously to recommend clemency for Thomas Koonce, a Black former Marine serving a life sentence for the 1987 killing of a New Bedford man. Koonce, then a 20-year-old home on leave, maintained he acted in self-defense and turned down a chance to plead guilty to manslaughter, which would have gotten him a 5-to-10-year sentence.
During his 28 years in prison, the board noted, Koonce earned a bachelor’s degree from the Boston University Prison Program, graduating magna cum laude, and has been “heavily involved” in Alternatives to Violence and the Victim Offender Education Group. The board based its recommendation on Koonce’s “extraordinary commitment to self-development and self-improvement.”
That decision was sent to Baker last January. He has yet to act on it.
The MBA task force called clemency in this state “an underutilized tool.”
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, a Democrat who came into office the same time as Baker, has become a national leader in reforming the way his state issues both commutations and pardons — not by changing the structure so much as making generous use of the existing system and encouraging inmates to apply for clemency.
Pennsylvania has one of the nation’s largest populations of people sentenced to life in prison, with about 1,200 sentenced under that state’s equivalent of the joint venture doctrine.
Earlier this year the governor granted clemency to 13 petitioners serving life sentences, bringing to 38 his total since taking office. The state’s five-member Board of Pardons, chaired by the lieutenant governor, has during that time heard 79 cases and recommended clemency in 42 of them.
It has also recommended 256 pardons thus far this year and 458 during 2020. Wolf approved 438 of the latter.
The Pennsylvania governor’s office credits a “user-friendly” application process for both.
And no doubt that has made a difference. But it’s also a case of personnel being policy — and a governor who is not risk-averse getting what he wants from the system. During the previous Pennsylvania Republican administration, the board heard two cases in four years. None got a favorable recommendation, sparing Governor Tom Corbett the need to make any decisions on clemency.
Governors generally get what they want from the boards they appoint. Charlie Baker may indeed be getting what he wants from his Advisory Board of Pardons, but in an era ripe for genuine criminal justice reform, it might not be what he — or Massachusetts — really needs.
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