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Disability laws apply to prisoners seeking parole, SJC rules

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 2016.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 2016.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The state’s highest court Monday extended the Americans with Disabilities Act to mentally and physically disabled prisoners seeking parole, ruling that the state must help them get support systems in place in the community.

The Supreme Judicial Court, in a unanimous ruling, wrote that the federal law aimed at ensuring equal access and services for the disabled in Massachusetts and the nation also applies to inmates serving sentences in state and county correctional systems.

The court said the Parole Board, if necessary, must hire experts to assist prisoners with developing release plans that address their disabilities and also create an environment in the community that reduces the chances of committing a new offense that would send them back to prison.

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“First, the board clearly may not categorically exclude any prisoner by reason of his or her disability,’’ Justice Kimberly S. Budd wrote for the court. “Second, both the ADA and the parole statute require the board to take some measures to accommodate prisoners with disabilities.’’

The SJC ruling came in a lawsuit filed against the board by Richard Crowell, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 1962 as the getaway driver in a fatal armed robbery and was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

His life sentence was commuted to 36 years to life and he was released on parole five times between 1975 and 1990. He was sent back to prison each time for repeated use of alcohol and assaultive behavior, according to the SJC. He was released again in 2003, but was back in prison within a month after he failed to participate in a residential release program, the SJC said.

In 1989, he suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and when he appeared before the board in 2012 seeking his release once again, he raised the medical condition as an explanation for his prior actions and as a justification for an immediate release, the court wrote.

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The board, with one member expressing concerns about the implications of the TBI on Crowell, voted against releasing him and ruled they would revisit his case every five years, the SJC wrote.

Crowell’s case became the vehicle the court used to explicitly connect prisoners to the protections provided to the disabled. The court ordered that his parole request undergo a review by the board and the courts.

James R. Pingeon, who filed a brief in support of Crowell on behalf of Prisoners’ Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, wrote in an e-mail that the ruling will allow law enforcement to focus on serious violent offenders.

“Very pleased with the SJC decision,’’ he wrote. “Prison beds should be reserved for people who are truly dangerous and not wasted on prisoners with disabilities who could live safely in the community if the parole board would help them find appropriate housing and services.”

In its ruling, the SJC emphasized the application of the ADA to prisoners should not override public safety concerns.

“The board’s important role in protecting society from the early release of dangerous persons means that the board must be able to consider whether the symptoms of a prisoner’s disability mean that he or she has a heightened propensity to commit crime while released on parole,’’ Budd wrote.


John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.

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