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Yvonne Abraham

At the parole board, justice is delayed and denied

Massachusetts Parole Board member Charlene Bonner (left) asked a question during a hearing in 2018. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File

Governor Charlie Baker has stratospheric approval ratings. But some would beg to differ, including those who loved Tina Williams.

They, as have thousands of others — inmates, parolees, victims, families — depended on the state’s parole board to make its life-changing decisions quickly and humanely.

Williams, a paragon of redemption, died waiting. And, if Baker’s latest nomination to the board is any indication, others will wait needlessly, too.

Physically and sexually abused as a child, Williams ran away from home at 15. She was trafficked to Massachusetts at 19, where her abusive pimp expected her to rob her johns. In 1970, a man she and another woman tried to rob attacked them. The women fought back, strangling him. Her co-defendant pled to manslaughter, but Williams’s attorney failed her, and she went to prison for murder.


After several parole violations, Williams finally got the drug treatment and counseling she needed, and was released for good in 1993. She regretted her crime every day, but she also soared, getting degrees in psychology and social work. She worked in AIDS prevention, and with poor and homeless women. She became a devoted mother and grandmother, and a fixture at St. Paul AME Church in Cambridge.

She was everything a parolee is supposed to be. And, after 15 years, she longed for her transformation to be acknowledged. She wanted to be off parole, done with constant monitoring, to travel easily for work and family, to be fully free. When she applied to have her parole terminated in 2008, her parole officer supported her petition, as did a former member of the parole board. But she was denied then, and denied again a few years later.

In 2016, Williams, suffering from lung cancer, tried a third time: “If the Board is merciful . . . I would be appreciative and ecstatic to live the rest of my life free from parole,” she wrote.


Perhaps the board was capable of that mercy. Perhaps not. We don’t know, since it appears to have done nothing with Williams’s petition. Her attorney Patty Garin received no response, even after she called and e-mailed to say Williams’s time was running out. A spokesman says her parole officer discussed the matter with Williams directly, but Garin says her client was too ill to manage her own petition.

Williams died on May 17, still a parolee. Even though she deserved to be fully free. Even though making her so would have cost the parole board nothing.

It would be one thing if Williams’s case were an aberration. But Garin and others say this parole board routinely takes its time making life-altering decisions for current and former inmates. She cited figures showing they failed to act on — or, in a few cases, denied — every petition to terminate parole from 2015 to 2018.

Dominated by members with law enforcement backgrounds, the board doesn’t see the humanity in enough of the people whose fates it decides. Advocates say it paroles too few inmates, and works too slowly. And that justice delayed is justice denied not just to inmates, but to victims and families too.

Across the country, criminal justice reform has been taken up by leaders of both parties: Giving inmates treatment, and breaks, they deserve, saves money and makes us all safer. The governor signed legislation last year that takes us further down that enlightened road.


But he has just nominated yet another former prosecutor, Karen McCarthy, to a parole board that desperately needs someone from the other side of the system, who understands addiction, mental illness, and what it takes for parolees to be successful on the outside.

At a heated hearing on Wednesday, several governor’s councilors made it clear they oppose McCarthy’s nomination for that reason.

“It’s time to put professionals on the board, mental health experts, people who know the system,” said Councilor Robert Jubinville. “Maybe we need a former inmate, somebody who has been there.”

Somebody like Tina Williams.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham