Governor Deval Patrick on Monday approved the early release of a prison inmate convicted of cocaine distribution, marking the first time in 17 years that a sitting governor has granted a commutation.
Deanne Hamilton, a 49-year-old Brockton woman, is about halfway through her 7½-year sentence in a Framingham prison, a punishment that state Parole Board officials deemed too harsh and failed to take into account her rehabilitation after her arrest.
“Deanne Hamilton has made exceptional strides in self-development and self-improvement,” the board wrote in its recommendation to Patrick. “There is clear and convincing evidence that a commutation of Deanne Hamilton’s sentence would advance the interests of justice and fully protect public safety.”
Patrick also approved pardons on Monday for four men who have been out of prison for years, which means their criminal records will be expunged. No pardon had been granted since 2002, when Governor Jane Swift issued pardons for seven people.
Hamilton’s lawyer, Kathleen O’Connell, said she was thrilled by the governor’s recommendation for a commutation.
“People have been compassionate and willing to listen about Deanne’s exceptional efforts toward turning her life around and rehabilitating herself,” O’Connell said.
The Governor’s Council must approve Patrick’s recommendations. Should the councilors vote in Hamilton’s favor, she will have another hearing before the Parole Board. In Massachusetts, commutations do not typically mean an automatic release, but instead lead to the granting of parole — meaning that an inmate who is released must abide by any conditions the board sets.
Terrence Kennedy, a member of the Governor’s Council, said he will confer with other board members to schedule a hearing for Hamilton, adding that he is happy to finally see recommendations for a commutation and pardons come before the council.
“I’ve been very disappointed that they haven’t happened because they can make a big difference in people’s lives who deserve it and who’ve earned it,” Kennedy said. “I hope there’s more coming.”
The Parole Board is reviewing more than 100 petitions for commutations and 30 petitions for pardons, but so far, no other hearings have been scheduled.
Kennedy said he wants to see more commutations before Patrick leaves office. “I’m sure that Governor-elect [Charlie] Baker will be hesitant to start off with commutations and pardons,” he said.
Baker’s spokesman, Tim Buckley, said “Governor-elect Baker is currently focused on the transition process, not potential future pardons,” he said.
Commutations carry more political risk than pardons because it can be harder to persuade the public that an inmate should be released before a sentence is finished.
In 1997, Weld agreed to commute the sentence of Joseph Salvati, who was wrongly convicted of murder — the last commutation granted in the state. But it was the 1995 commutation of convicted murderer Joseph Yadle that embarrassed Weld.
In 1998, after Weld left office, officials learned Yadle had lied about his military service on his commutation petition and Governor Paul Cellucci, Weld’s successor, moved to revoke the commutation.
This year, Parole Board members and lawyers in the governor’s office scoured probation, court, and police records to verify the information they were hearing from those petitioning for leniency.
Pat Moore, deputy counsel for Patrick, said administration officials looked for compelling cases that showed a person had been rehabilitated and would not commit another crime. The governor wanted to give a second chance to people who had clearly earned it, he said.
In 2007, Brockton police found Hamilton living in the home of a drug dealer and charged her with conspiracy to distribute cocaine 700 feet from a school zone after finding three grams of the substance. After spending two years in jail awaiting trial, she was convicted by a jury. But a Bristol Court judge vacated the conviction citing insufficient evidence and she was released from prison. A Plymouth prosecutor appealed the judge’s decision to the state’s Appellate Court.
Hamilton, who had battled cocaine addiction for decades, got sober, saw a therapist, and became interested in going to community college.
At the same time Hamilton was transforming herself, Patrick and the Legislature began revising mandatory drug sentencing laws, including scaling back drug-free school zones from 1,000 feet to 300 feet.
In May 2013, the Appellate Court decided in favor of prosecutors and Hamilton was sent back to prison.
In September, Hamilton went before the Parole Board and pleaded for a commutation. At the end of October, the board issued an eight-page decision recommending Patrick commute Hamilton’s sentence.
Patrick granted pardons for four people: Jeffrey Snyder, who was convicted of marijuana distribution in the 1990s; Guy James Coraccio, who was convicted of larceny and motor vehicle infractions more than 40 years ago; Thomas K. Schoolcraft, who was convicted of breaking and entering; and True-See Allah, who was convicted in 1991 of attempted murder. Schoolcraft, who is completing his master’s degree in criminal justice administration, said he was “extremely grateful” to Patrick.
“It’s extremely important for people who do get a criminal record, who get wrapped up in the system . . . to see there is a way out, that there is redemption,” he said. “That they’re able to work toward that and it’s an achievable goal.”
• 10/09: Governor Patrick may grant his first pardons
• 10/27: Late in governor’s tenure, hope for first commutations
Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.