It was a year ago this week that William Allen was freed from prison after serving nearly 28 years — his commutation one of only three approved in the final days of Governor Charlie Baker’s administration. It was also one of only four approved in the state in the past 25 years.
Clemency, which includes both commutations of existing sentences and pardons that wipe convictions off the books, has been exceedingly rare for a variety of reasons — including the fear politicians have that they might be accused of being soft on crime. Doing nothing is often the easy way out — the default position for risk-averse governors.
But clemency, particularly the possibility of commutations for those still in prison, is also an essential part of good prison policy. It’s an incentive for good behavior, active engagement in prison programming and self-improvement, and it provides a pathway to eventual reentry into society.
“Prison becomes a place where hope is still alive, not dead,” said attorney Patty DeJuneas, a member of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Clemency Task Force, which last week proposed new clemency guidelines in a meeting with senior members of the Healey administration.
A spokesperson for Governor Maura Healey said in a statement, “Our office is reviewing their recommendations and welcomes an open dialogue on this topic,” adding that the administration views clemency “as an important executive power that can help make our criminal justice system more fair and equitable.”
More than 1,000 of the state’s 6,000 or so prison inmates are serving life without parole, making commutation of that life sentence their only hope of ever seeing the outside of a prison cell. There is no database that tells us how many of them, like William Allen, were sentenced as part of the now much-narrowed doctrine of felony murder — whereby someone who was not involved in the actual killing could be convicted and sentenced for a murder committed, say, in the course of a robbery. Allen’s case was particularly egregious because not only had he not been guilty of the 1994 stabbing of Purvis Bester, but the man who wielded the knife had been released from prison 10 years earlier after pleading guilty to the crime.
A Globe Spotlight team story found that at least 23 men currently in the system serving life without parole under the felony murder doctrine had not wielded the murder weapon. All but one of them are Black or Hispanic.
DeJuneas noted that some 82 percent of those serving life without parole for felony murder are people of color. Her hope is that a better commutation process could also lead to the early release of those serving long mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses — which also fell more frequently on people of color.
“Commutations can be used by a governor to address that racial disparity” in both life without parole sentences and lengthy mandatory drug sentences,” she added.
The proposed new guidelines would recognize “changes and new developments in the law that have occurred since the convictions,” including changes that recognize how the Supreme Judicial Court narrowed the doctrine of felony murder back in 2017, defenses based on battered women’s syndrome, and new research on the brain development of youthful offenders suggesting “younger individuals are less culpable for their actions and have a greater capacity for change.”
Advanced age and frailty would also become a factor carefully spelled out in the guidelines, which would recognize that “recidivism declines with age and chronic health conditions.”
And the proposal sets timetables for the Advisory Board of Pardons to review a petition for clemency, to grant a hearing, and to rule on a case if that hearing is granted. In short, it provides a system that is not an empty promise. At the time William Allen’s commutation petition was pending it was one of some 240 such proposals in the board’s pipeline.
New guidelines that emphasize prison programming, career training, education, and restorative justice might also encourage the Department of Correction to “step up its game” and recognize what a difference those programs can make in the lives of prisoners, DeJuneas said. And as one of Allen’s lawyers, she added, what a difference they made in his life and in helping to win his freedom.
The proposed guidelines are, in fact, solid and would be a thoughtful improvement in the way this state approaches the notion of who deserves a second chance for freedom or a clean slate that paves the way for a new job or professional licensure.
But even if adopted, they are only as good as the governor who implements them. That’s the part that takes courage — the kind of courage that shouldn’t have to wait until the final days of a new administration.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial did not accurately specify the type of offense for which 82 percent of prisoners in Massachusetts serving life without parole are people of color. According to attorney Patty DeJuneas, the figure applies to those serving life without parole for felony murder.
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