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Among state lawmakers, compassionate release of inmates is divisive issue

Sal DiMasi, then speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, is seen in a photo from 2006.AP

State lawmakers applauded the recent request by the federal government to free former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi from prison early under a program for elderly and severely ill inmates, agreeing that DiMasi, who has twice battled cancer while incarcerated, should be home with his family.

Yet attempts to enact a similar program for terminally ill inmates in Massachusetts have floundered for five years in the state Legislature, even though some lawmakers support DiMasi’s early release.

State Senator Will Brownsberger, who supports a compassionate release program for state inmates, attributes the difference to plain politics.

“People are unwilling to release someone who has committed a serious crime, even if they are bedridden,” said Brownsberger, co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, who backs both DiMasi’s early release and the proposed state program. “I think that’s what we should be doing, but it’s a change of policy and it’s one that takes a lot of conversation.”

DiMasi is a federal inmate, so he would not be directly affected by a change in state law, but his case has brought attention to the state legislation. He has been diagnosed twice with cancer since he was sentenced to eight years for a public corruption conviction in 2011.


Earlier this year, a bill calling for compassionate release of Massachusetts inmates cleared the Senate. But in the House, the proposal was sent to a committee and then for a study, which effectively killed it for the legislative session.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who holds significant sway over legislation in the House, has the power to move the bill forward. Last week, he applauded the federal government’s decision to recommend DiMasi’s release, saying that he was grateful for the decision and that he looks “forward to the speaker being reunited with his family.”

But he is not committing to a change in state law that would allow Massachusetts to change its own policy.


“The speaker has not yet taken a formal position,’’ a spokesman for DeLeo said in a statement on Wednesday. “As he does on all matters, he is hearing from interested parties and the committee. He plans to discuss the issue with other members in anticipation of revisiting the matter in the next legislative session.”

Governor Charlie Baker also praised the possible release of DiMasi, saying it “makes sense for Sal DiMasi to be closer to his family given his health concerns.” But when asked about the state legislation, his administration released a noncommital statement, saying the governor “will carefully review any legislative proposals advancing to the governor’s desk.”

The statement included the fact that such programs vary across the country and that they “warrant careful consideration of the risks to public safety, the concerns of victims and their families, and the feasibility of providing care in the community for former inmates.”

Under a compassionate release program, also known as a medical placement program, a correctional facility can ask a judge to reconsider an inmate’s sentence based on new circumstances, such as failing health.

The proposed state legislation would create a mechanism for the lawyer or family member of an inmate or a prison official to ask a judge to release a terminally ill inmate to the care of a family member or caretaker. After holding hearings to confirm the illness and determining whether the inmate would pose a public safety risk if freed, the judge could order the inmate’s release.


Brownsberger and prisoners-rights advocates expressed hope this week that DiMasi’s case would raise awareness about the benefits of compassionate release programs, which advocates say could also save the state millions of dollars in healthcare costs. If prisoners are released, the state prison system would no longer have to pay for their health care.

The state spends $100 million a year in health care for inmates, according to Department of Correction figures.

In asking for him to be released, federal prosecutors cited DiMasi’s age (71), his health, and noted that he has completed half of his sentence for political corruption. US District Judge Mark L. Wolf set a hearing for Nov. 1 to consider the recommendation.

John Reinstein, an attorney for DiMasi, said that the former speaker’s case shows the importance of having mechanisms in place for inmates who qualify for release.

“I’ve seen the people at the state level who are in dire shape and are essentially dying in prison,” he said. “Prison is a terrible place to be, but it is a much worse place if you have a serious medical condition.”

DiMasi’s wife, Debbie DiMasi, last year spoke before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary calling for a state compassionate release program, saying she has seen how prisons have failed to provide adequate care for severely ill inmates.

Governor Deval Patrick first proposed an emergency medical placement program in 2011 after a state consultant’s report warned of skyrocketing health care costs for inmates, and an aging inmate population.


County sheriffs have also endorsed the idea of a medical placement program, pointing out that inmates who arrive at county jails are often receiving medical care for the first time. In some rare cases, they are diagnosed with debilitating diseases.

“We look forward to the next legislative session when we hope the Legislature and the governor agree that releasing prisoners is an opportunity to save money,” said Leslie Walker, head of Prisoners Legal Services, an inmate rights advocacy group.

She added, “Its benefits are many and include the opportunity for critically ill prisoners to receive the individualized, round-the-clock care that prisons do not provide.”

State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, a former aide to DiMasi who replaced him as the North End’s representative, said last week that he was “ecstatic” with the news of DiMasi’s possible release. Michlewitz said in an interview that he could not say why proposals for a state compasionare release program have failed, but said he supports such a measure. He said the former speaker’s case has illuminated the need.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia