The recent decisions by Governor Charlie Baker to grant the clemency petitions of Thomas Koonce and William Allen made headlines around the state, not because of controversy — to the contrary, both prosecutors and criminal justice reform advocates were vocally supportive — but because they are rare acts of grace afforded to so few of the deserving. In fact, there hasn’t been a commutation of a life sentence in Massachusetts in 25 years.
In a Commonwealth rightly considered a national leader for progressive policy advances, from health care to education to civil rights, clemency’s rare approval is a clear indication that we have much further to go in living up to those values in our criminal justice system.
Both my professional and personal experiences have been informed by the simple idea of redemption. Professionally, I serve as president and CEO of YouthBuild USA, leading the effort to champion opportunity for young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school nor employed to earn the knowledge, training, and opportunities that lead to long-term professional and personal success. At more than 275 YouthBuild programs across the world, these young people, many of whom have previously encountered the criminal justice system, come to us looking for that second chance.
Personally, like Koonce and Allen, I too was sentenced to prison for taking another person’s life. When I was 20, my then-girlfriend was raped. In my anger and anguish over what happened to her, I made a terrible decision and shot and killed the man responsible. In 1991, I began a 16-year sentence in Sing Sing prison in New York. While incarcerated, I accepted full responsibility for my crime — without rationalization, justification, excuses, or blame — and committed to making amends.
While inside, I earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, became an HIV/AIDS counselor, taught fellow inmates to read and write, and helped them access high school equivalency instruction and alternatives-to-violence programs. I developed an initiative that provides college-level certificates in ministry and human services to the incarcerated and cofounded the first privately funded, accredited college program in New York’s prisons. It was here where I realized my life’s mission: to open doors of opportunity for those who need it.
I also became aware of the work waiting for me in our communities. I was ready to make a difference on the outside, just as I had on the inside. Having already been denied parole twice, I applied for clemency through the state of New York in 2005. My request was denied, and it wasn’t until 2008 that I was released.
In the nearly 14 years since, I have worked to tackle the challenges faced by overlooked populations. My experience has shown me that purpose and redemption can only be found by making a difference in the lives of others. I believe everything happened exactly as it needed to for the highest good, but I also know there comes a time in the sentences of too many when further incarceration serves no rehabilitative purpose. Individuals who have faced their guilt honestly, sought to make amends, and done all they can to never again be the person they were on the day of their crimes deserve the opportunity to contribute to society. I’ve built a good life — indeed, I am still building. But as time goes on and I get older, I can’t help but wonder: Did the journey have to be as long as it was?
The clemencies for Koonce and Allen still need the approval of the Governor’s Council and the Parole Board, approvals that I hope are granted. But their freedom should not be the only outcome. We must begin a serious discussion on the need for comprehensive criminal justice reform in Massachusetts, including the increased use of clemency. This power was never meant to be a once-in-a-generation aberration, but a regular check and balance on injustice.
I believe that the state has the ability to be more compassionate than it currently is. A fair criminal justice system does not punish more than is necessary and must believe that no one should be defined only by the worst thing one has ever done, but also by who they are today and can be in the future.
John Valverde is the president and CEO of Roxbury-based YouthBuild USA. He is also a member of the Council on Criminal Justice.