Angela Jefferson has spent the past 30 years of her life in prison, with no end in sight.
The state’s Advisory Board of Pardons recently denied her even a hearing. No surprise there. Only two such commutation hearings have been granted since 2014, with more than 200 petitions still pending.
Jefferson, who was convicted of first-degree murder at age 21 for stabbing a man who had cheated on her, is one of 24 women serving life without parole behind the walls of MCI Framingham. Seventeen of them are over the age of 50.
Statewide, 1,013 inmates — 1 in every 6 men and women incarcerated in a Massachusetts state prison — are there without any chance for parole. More than half that number are over the age of 50, according to Department of Correction data as of the end of July.
The graying of the state’s prison population, combined with the failure of the Parole Board (whose members also double as the Advisory Board of Pardons) to provide a meaningful off-ramp for those who have attempted to lead exemplary lives behind bars, means the state is spending in excess of $100,000 a year to care for people unlikely to reoffend.
One study, involving the release of 200 elderly prisoners who had been sentenced to life and served decades in Maryland state prisons but were released following a court decision invalidated their sentences, found they had a recidivism rate of 3 percent. That tracks with what other studies have found about overall recidivism rates among older people. For instance, a study of federal prisoners by the US Sentencing Commission found, “Older offenders were substantially less likely than younger offenders to recidivate following release.” Followed over an eight-year period, 13.4 percent of offenders age 65 or older at the time of release ended up back in prison, compared with 68 percent of those under age 21.
“There are women living with dementia in Framingham, women using walkers, women in wheelchairs,” said Sashi James, a community organizer for Families for Justice as Healing. “It just makes no sense.”
James’s organization has taken up the cases of a number of those women now serving life without parole, including that of Angela Jefferson.
James said officials had rejected Jefferson’s petition for a commutation, which would make her parole-eligible, because she hadn’t participated in enough prison programs. “First of all, there’s just not enough programming at Framingham, and during COVID some of what they did have was canceled,” James said.
In spite of that, Jefferson, the mother of three and now grandmother of one, is well on her way to a bachelor’s degree from Boston University.
Also on the group’s list is Nancy Netto, age 64, having served 28 years in Framingham on charges of joint felony murder with her husband, who was convicted of actually wielding the knife that killed Robert Levesque in 1993. The legal doctrine under which she was held jointly responsible has since been revisited and narrowed by the state’s highest court, but not Netto’s case.
“She’s now in a wheelchair,” James said.
Indeed, one consequence of the state’s stinginess on clemency is a prison population dealing with all the challenges of aging. “Compared to their counterparts in the [larger] community, older prisoners have a greater incidence of illness, disease, disability, and mental health diagnoses,” Michael Pittaro, a member of the criminal justice faculty at American Military University, wrote in a blog post. “They require more care at a younger age.” That’s not cheap. In Massachusetts, should an inmate need to be hospitalized for a long-term or chronic illness at the Shattuck Hospital (a state public health hospital now scheduled to close), the annual cost is in excess of $200,000 a year.
Some states, like Pennsylvania, have looked to a broader use of clemency to deal with the issue of aging prisoners serving life without parole.
California was forced by a federal court order to reduce its prison population and to begin by implementing a parole process for inmates over the age of 60 who have been imprisoned for at least 25 years. Legislation passed in 2020 subsequently forced the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to order elder parole hearings for inmates beginning at age 50 and after 20 years of incarceration.
In Massachusetts, a growing group of lawmakers is proposing to change the state’s law to mandate parole eligibility after 25 years of incarceration. There are exceptions in the bill for those convicted of multiple murders and those confined to the hospital at MCI Bridgewater, used to house those judged criminally insane. It also mandates the Department of Correction to set up a restorative justice program for anyone sentenced to more than 25 years in prison “in order to develop a plan of reconciliation.”
Despite having more than two dozen sponsors, the bill, filed by state Representatives Liz Miranda and Jay Livingstone, both of Boston, has thus far gained little traction this year on Beacon Hill — something members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Reform caucus hope to change with an Oct. 14 Zoom briefing on the issue.
Massachusetts doesn’t have an overcrowding problem as California did. But neither does it have a well-functioning commutation process for those currently not parole-eligible. A well-managed corrections system should provide both hope and incentives for inmates “to utilize available resources for self-development and self-improvement” so they can “become law-abiding citizens and return to society.” That quote comes directly from Governor Charlie Baker’s own clemency guidelines.
Whether through an expanded use of clemency or a new path to parole for aging prisoners currently without one, it’s high time Massachusetts added a healthy dose of real justice to its criminal justice system.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.