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Healey, promising more compassion, overhauls state’s guidelines for pardons, commutations

Governor Maura Healey, left, applauded as Terrance Williams, center, talked to reporters during a June news conference announcing that Healey was recommending pardons for seven individuals, including Williams.Steve LeBlanc/Associated Press

Vowing to inject more “compassion” into clemency, Governor Maura Healey said Tuesday she’ll weigh a host of factors when considering requests for pardons or commutations, including racial disparities, sexual identity, and a person’s age when they were convicted of a crime.

Healey’s newly released guidelines marks a major expansion of the framework intended to help guide those seeking clemency. They also further signal the Democrat’s willingness to wield clemency earlier and more often than her predecessors.

Healey said she would consider a person’s “maturity” at the time the crime was committed, nodding to research about brain development and its impact on behavior. And in a break from the guidelines issued by former governor Charlie Baker, Healey said while she will give “significant consideration” to those who accept responsibility for their crimes, she will not hold it against those who don’t.

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Healey, a former civil rights attorney, on Tuesday also recommended two pardons, pushing the number of people for whom she has sought clemency to 13 during her first year in office.

The governor is seeking a pardon for Eric Nada, an Oregon man and psychologist who was convicted of selling heroin in the mid-1990s when he was in his early 20s, as well as Robert Miller, of Reading, who was convicted of counterfeiting licenses 30 years ago and now is the chief executive of a renewable energy company he founded.

The Governor’s Council, which vets the governor’s recommendations, approved each of Healey’s other 11 requests.

“These new guidelines are about impact. They’re about having an impact on the lives of hundreds of people in our state,” Healey said during an appearance Tuesday on WBUR’s “Radio Boston” program, adding that as a former state attorney general, she doesn’t take clemency “lightly.”

“It’s also the case that our system and the system for clemency and parole has not taken into account certain things that we should account for,” she said.

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In her seven-page guidelines, Healey said she would use clemency for a variety of reasons, including whether to “address miscarriage of justice,” taking into account the “persistence of racial disparities, and their root causes.”

Healey, the state’s first openly gay governor, said in weighing a petition for a commutation — or reducing a sentence — she intends to also consider whether a person is LGBTQ+, as well as a survivor of sexual assault, domestic violence, or human trafficking.

“[Those] who are LGBTQ+ are often at heightened risk of harm and experience additional trauma while incarcerated,” the guidelines state.

Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel of the Massachusetts Bar Association, said Healey’s decision to also take in the age of incarcerated individuals — specifically those over 50 or with health problems — in commutation requests is a “sea change.”

“It’s a balanced approach that eschews an old way of looking at clemency,” Healy said, noting that past governors have taken a more “clinical” approach to who could qualify for clemency. “She is looking at this more from a human equity perspective and how this affects real people in their everyday lives.”

Governors in recent years have taken steps to make it easier for those convicted of crimes to be eligible for clemency. Former governor Deval Patrick, for example, reduced the time a person’s record had to be clean in order to be considered. He lowered the threshold from 15 years to 10 in felony cases and from 10 years to five in misdemeanor cases. Baker and Healey have adopted similar structures.

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It has not always translated to waves of clemency approvals, though. Patrick, a Democrat, recommended just four pardons and one commutation, all in the final weeks of his second term. Baker, a Republican, left office this year having 15 pardons approved by the Governor’s Council, in addition to three commutations for men serving life sentences for murder — all done in his final year. He also was the first Massachusetts governor in a quarter-century to commute the life sentence of someone convicted of murder.

Baker, in some instances, also used more narrow guidelines than what Healey has now released. He said, for example, he would “rarely” grant clemency to those who did not accept responsibility for the crime for which they were convicted.

Healey is taking a different tact. “Petitioners who maintain their innocence, like other petitioners, shall be eligible for clemency as the circumstances warrant,” her guidelines read.

Healey aides said she was the first governor since William Weld in 1991 to recommend a pardon in their first elected year. Her 13 recommendations also represent the most in a governor’s first year since 1983, when Michael Dukakis recommended 49 pardons and four commutations, according to Healey’s office.

Healey said during her campaign last year that she also intended to “move to pardon” those convicted of simple marijuana possession, though she has yet to take widespread action and her guidelines do not specifically address that. The guidelines do, however, leave open the possibility for updates “to address specific issues.”

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Patricia Garin, the co-director of the Northeastern School of Law’s Prisoners’ Rights Clinic, praised Healey’s framework in a statement released by the governor’s office, calling them a “reliable way to address unfairness” in the criminal justice system.

“It appears,” Garin said, “that we may finally have a governor who has the courage to get smart on crime.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout.