Who oversees parole in Mass? What motivates decisions? Does the outcome help the Commonwealth? Will the addition of another career prosecutor tilt the Mass parole board away from second chances?
It was quite a show in Room 157 of the Massachusetts State House on June 19. Not exactly a typical Governor’s Council hearing. It’s not usual for arguments to break out between councilors, or for a parole board nominee to almost dissolve into tears. But both of those things happened during this highly contentious five-hour event, a precursor to the Council’s vote to approve Karen McCarthy for a seat on the parole board.
In addition to such scenes, there were powerful testimonies about McCarthy, a career prosecutor from the Hampden County District Attorney’s office. Nominated by Gov. Charlie Baker to fill out the seven-person board, she became the fifth member from law enforcement. But according to some people on hand, McCarthy should never have been approved for a spot on the body that decides the fate of prisoners eligible for finishing their sentence in the community.
As prison rights advocates argued, the hearing revealed a malfunctioning parole board that is failing residents of the Commonwealth. Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, told the Governor’s Council, “The number one thing we hear about in the last decade from prisoners is problems with parole.” Matos, whose group’s mission is to help incarcerated men and women throughout Massachusetts, added, “Parole is not being used as a public safety tool the way it should be.”
“It isn’t what Ms. McCarthy is; it is what she is not.”
Patricia Garin, an attorney and Northeastern University School of Law professor who supervises students representing lifers at Massachusetts Parole Board hearings, was the first of 17 people signed up to testify against the nominee at last week’s hearing.
“Ms. McCarthy is not a behavioral scientist,” Garin added. “She does not bring those skills to the board.”
As the State House News Service reported, “McCarthy has spent a career working in the Springfield area courts, including the drug court. She told the council that her work as a prosecutor has given her experience evaluating defendants and differentiating between individuals who pose a threat to the community and those who might benefit from a ‘second chance.’”
Questioning McCarthy’s record, Alejandro Ramos, a public defender at the Hampden County Committee for Public Counsel Services, sent a letter to councilors noting the nominee’s “lapses of judgement” and “failure to turn over discovery” in Springfield District Court. McCarthy, Ramos argued, is not merely unsuited for the board because she is another prosecutor, but rather because she is a “partisan” prosecutor.
McCarthy defended herself against criticism at the hearing. Choking back tears, she said, “I don’t have time to go to political rallies. I don’t have time to play golf. … I don’t have time to be in the group of people that makes all the phone calls to you that matters. So I’m an easy pawn for you to say [I’m] a prosecutor.”
The parole board has four other members from law enforcement: Chair Gloriann Moroney, a former Suffolk County assistant district attorney; Sheila Dupre and Colette Santa, both from the Department of Correction; and Tina Hurley, who has spent her career in parole jobs. Another member, Tonomey Coleman, is an attorney, while the only member from the social or human services fields is psychologist Charlene Bonner. Bonner had been working in “holdover status” for more than a year until late June, when the governor renominated her for the board.
“Prosecutors are in the business of prosecuting and in the business of sending people to jail,” said Milton Jones of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute of Boston. A formerly incarcerated advocate for victims as well as perpetrators of crime, he told the councilors that the appointment of McCarthy would not add “balance” to the board. “That is their very job,” Jones said. “They seek out convictions.”
Massachusetts legislation specifically calls for a diverse and experienced variety of parole board members. Nominees must have “five years of experience and training in … parole, probation, corrections, law, law enforcement, psychology, psychiatry, sociology [or] social work.” In practice, however, rather than focusing on mental health professionals, Gov. Baker tapped McCarthy for a seat left vacant by Paul Tressler, another career prosecutor who is now a Boston Municipal Court judge.
Baker nominated McCarthy despite a 2017 letter, signed by more than 70 community groups—as well as a 2018 letter signed by 45 groups—urging the governor to appoint more members with education, training, and clinical experience in the treatment of substance use disorders and mental health conditions. While Baker has acknowledged Massachusetts is in the midst of an “opioid and heroin crisis,” he has not followed through with board nominations. Nationally, even the conservative group Right on Crime says that behavioral science backgrounds are crucial for fairness and for the kind of in-depth questioning that any parole board should do to investigate the mental health and substance use issues of its petitioners. A wide body of research shows that a diverse board is needed to properly judge those who come before it.
The Governor’s Council usually rubber stamps the nominees of the governor. This includes judges, clerk-magistrates, public administrators, members of the parole board, Appellate Tax Board, Industrial Accident Board and Industrial Accident Reviewing Board, notaries, and justices of the peace. According to a 2004 State House News Service article, over 19 months, the council in the early aughts nixed four of Gov. Mitt Romney’s nominees. That was a lot by comparison; between July 2015 and June 2019, all of Baker’s nominees were approved (one withdrew).
McCarthy was approved on a 5-3 vote. One councilor who voted against her said, “The courageous vote is to say no. Send the governor a message that enough is enough.”
When parole fails
It is common knowledge that the United States is the world’s largest jailer, locking up 2.3 million people across the country. Within that system, parole is often portrayed as “a free pass,” but this is far from the reality in a system obsessed with punishment.
Parole can reduce incarceration numbers, allowing people to complete their sentences in the community. It can also save money, lower recidivism, and ease the difficult re-entry process. At the same time, parole is often so restrictive that it sets people up to fail with hefty supervision fees, intense surveillance, and a long list of requirements—from drug testing to mandatory attendance at groups like AA, NA, and anger management. All of the above plus controversial electronic monitoring can make holding a job extremely difficult.
In Massachusetts, it costs $80 a month to be on parole. Add to that gas prices or bus fees that people must pay to visit supervising officers. Those who are just out of prison and have trouble finding jobs still have to pay rent and support themselves, often in communities where they cannot associate with parties they are likely to see in public. As Jorge Renaud, a former senior policy analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative, reported in 2019, “For those on parole, this policy not only isolates them from those who might best support and advise them as they move back into their communities—it gives any individual on parole the subtle message that they, too, are viewed with suspicion, and that others are warned against associating with them.”
Massachusetts is returning people to prison for noncriminal activities. Documents that I obtained through a public records request show that after Paul Treseler became board chair in September, 2015, through January, 2019, there were 1,491 revocations, i.e., returns to prison for those on parole who are sent back for some sort of “violation.” Only 197 of those revocations were actually new arrests. That means Massachusetts is returning people for reasons like “failure to find and maintain employment,” “missing curfew,” “failure to comply with medical orders,” and “failure to notify a parole officer of a change in home or work address.” According to a 2017 statement by 35 probation and parole executives and community leaders, as authorities violate people unnecessarily, parole “has become a significant contributor to mass incarceration with nearly as many people entering prison for violations … as for new offenses.”
Unnecessary incarceration is also a heavy burden for taxpayers. According to the Department of Correction (DOC), the average annual cost of housing a state prisoner is $70,892, while the estimated cost of a year of parole supervision is less than $10,000. (Parole reported an annual cost of $5,000 in 2013.)
Research has shown that states that allow people on parole to stay in their home communities see a decrease in incarceration rates. In Mass, meanwhile, as close DOC observers tell it, the board makes re-entry extremely difficult and does not appear to have an interest in changing its practices.
Off the charts
The parole board is demonstrably inefficient. According to a report by the Lifers Group at Norfolk Prison, in 2018 the average wait time between board hearings and the date decisions were returned was 310 days. Contrast this with 2015, when the average wait was 87 days. This was during the time when Dr. Charlene Bonner, the only psychologist on the board, stepped in as temporary chair after another member, Joshua Wall, was appointed to a judgeship. At the time, parole decisions were written by board members themselves, and often included more detail. Now they are written by four attorneys who do not attend the hearings—so we have to conclude, written from the notes of parole board members.
At a Governor’s Council hearing earlier this year for former Suffolk County ADA Gloriann Moroney, who at the time was the parole board executive director on her way to becoming the chair, councilor Eileen Duff asked her about the body’s inefficiency, “hostile work environment,” and “culture of fear” and “mismanagement.” Moroney blamed it all on budget cuts, but Duff didn’t buy it.
“What is stunning to me [is] that there is four times the staff than under earlier boards and they still can’t get the decisions out,” Duff said.
Besides the long backlog, the parole board is failing to respond to petitions from prisoners for pardons and commutations. A pardon means forgiveness of one’s underlying crime; commutations leave the conviction intact but reduce the punishment; both must be heard by the parole board and approved before they’re sent on to the governor for his signature.
Facing inquiries from Duff, Moroney conceded that there were somewhere between 240 and 250 pardon and commutation petitions pending before the parole board—about 40 of which were from 2018. A public records request revealed that between September 2015 and September 2018, the board failed to issue a single decision on any of the 45 commutation petitions that had been filed. According to the Salem News, Baker is among the least forgiving modern Massachusetts governors: “Records kept by the Governor’s Council show governors since 1945 have made 5,772 pardons and 267 commutations. More than two-thirds of the pardons, and a third of the commutations, were approved from 1964 to 1971.”
Donald Perry, who was once on parole himself and now works with several organizations to fight parole injustice, including the Coalition for Effective Public Safety, noted the ripple effect on men and women behind the walls. He said, “I get calls from lifers every week that feel they have not gotten a fair hearing by the parole board.”
According to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocacy group, parole rates in Mass are relatively dismal. In 2018, 17% of DOC prisoners who were released to the community were put under parole supervision; 10% were put on parole and probation; 34% were put on probation; and 39% were released with no supervision.
In a 2018 letter to Gov. Baker, the Coalition for Effective Public Safety wrote that parole reform was largely omitted from the criminal justice legislation passed last April. This was despite efforts by the Council of State Governments (CSG), among others in power, to address recidivism in Mass, i.e., people returning to prison. Recommendations included helping those who are on parole find jobs before violating them for a lack of finding employment, assisting them with housing, and helping with substance abuse issues and mental health.
CSG also recommended that the parole board pay more attention to the individual needs of those on parole, in part by offering better training to officers and discarding the demeaning “trail them, nail them, and jail them” practice currently deployed in many places.
Breaking the rules
Massachusetts Parole Board members are paid an average of $115,000 per year. They also receive vehicles from the state in order to drive to the hearings, and there are other potential perks as well.
As research done for this story revealed, three of the members of the board have partners who could have an interest in the outcome of the parole board’s decisions.
Though Collette Santa didn’t mention her husband’s career at her hearing to become a board member, it turns out he works in corrections. (I personally testified against Santa and do not recall that any of the Governor’s Councilors asked about her husband’s profession.) Documents show that while she was on the parole board, Santa’s husband became superintendent of M.C.I. Norfolk. Santa was not assigned to Norfolk to hear parole petitions in that time—there are 4,800 hearings yearly in state prisons and county correctional facilities with two- or three-person panels, and members travel around to participate. That would have been a conflict of interest. However, she still was tasked with judging lifers who were eligible for parole and who came before the full board. In 2018, Santa was present and did not recuse herself at public hearings for many life-sentenced men housed at Norfolk—including at least 15 who did not get parole.
Sheila Dupre spent her career in corrections and became a parole board member in 2011. That year Gov. Deval Patrick forced five board members to resign after lifer Dominic Cinelli was released on parole and subsequently murdered Woburn police Officer John Maguire. The board was largely blamed for the tragedy because they released him. As reported in a 2011 Boston Magazine article, despite his long-standing substance use issues, Cinelli did not receive adequate employment, drug programming, or treatment.
Enter Dupre, a lifelong corrections employee with experience at the Hampden County Sheriff’s office and the Mass DOC. She was reappointed to the board in 2016 by Gov. Baker. Unlike Santa, Dupre mentioned her spouse, a high-ranking corrections officer in Hampden County, at her hearing. According to records obtained for this story, Dupre has visited at least one man in the facility where her husband works to determine his fitness for parole.
Board Chair Gloriann Moroney also has what some consider to be a problematic personal connection. She is married to Gregory Long, the recently appointed chief superintendent of the Boston Police Department. The BPD writes letters objecting to parole for a number of lifers requesting early release.
Additionally, the parole board is often used as a stepping stone to judgeship. This raises concerns: Do parole board nominees believe in second chances? Or do they merely see the board as a way to get a better job?
From public records, I found that nine board members or chairs became judges and were so approved by the Governor’s Council: Caeser Achilla, Paul Chernoff, Jack Curren, Ina Howard Hogan, Michael Pomorole, Paul Treseler, Maureen Walsh, and Joshua Wall. Additionally, in her interview with the Governor’s Council, new board chair Gloriann Moroney refused to state how long she would commit to the board and whether or not she would apply for a judgeship.
It’s common for the parole board to be sued.
“As soon as one lawsuit is resolved there’s a new one” Gloriann Moroney said at her hearing, dismissing the complaints as “mostly” coming from prisoners. She estimated that there were about 20 cases on the docket.
Prisoners have grievances aplenty. The 2018 Lifers Report from Norfolk charges that the parole board is rigged against them and recommends that members have “5 years experience in gang cultures or sexual, physical, emotional abuse of children which can lead to committing crimes in later years, or mental health.”
At Karen McCarthy’s hearing, Mallory Hanora, executive director of Families for Justice and Healing, expressed the need to have formerly incarcerated people involved in all decisions impacting the justice system. “We want to amplify the call for someone on the board who has experienced parole themselves,” Hanora said.
Another complaint relates to the scheduling of hearings. One lifer reported to me that he was told by his attorney that if he wanted to postpone his parole hearing he would be placed on a list. “[The reason] they won’t say when the date will be is because the list is always flowing,” he wrote. He was told that with a postponement it could be years before he got another chance to see the board.
Employees of the parole board have complaints as well. At Moroney’s hearing, Governor’s Councilor Marilyn Devaney noted the way in which member Lucy Soto-Abbe, who had been in holdover status for more than a year, was replaced. While Moroney was approached in the summer of 2018 for the job, no one apparently told Soto-Abbe she would not be renominated. Devaney said she contacted Soto-Abbe after she heard that Gov. Baker nominated her replacement.
In an interview for this article, Soto-Abbe said that she was treated poorly by “the parole board, the Executive Office for Public Safety and Security (EOPSS), and Gov. Baker’s Administration,” and not even offered a ride home after she turned in her vehicle. She mentioned the names of three people who were fired from the agency and seven who “retired,” speculating that some may have been pushed out for speaking out against the board about how they were treated.
Adding salt to the wound, just before McCarthy’s hearing, Soto-Abbe says she was asked to do a favor for the Baker administration and publicly endorse Karen McCarthy. As Soto-Abbe wrote in a letter to all councilors, “The General Counsel of the Office of Governor Charlie Baker suggested that I contact a member of the Governor’s Council in order to endorse their most recent nominee for the position of Board Member.” Irate, Soto-Abbe called out the governor’s counsel for wanting her to push their candidate.
Julie Pease began her career with the parole board in 1996 as a paralegal specialist and filed a complaint against the board in 2017. Pease wanted to advance in her job but says the board refused her because she is Asian. One week later she was transferred out of the position she had for years and moved to a job for which she said she was not qualified. Civil Service Commission Chairman Christopher Bowman recommended that her allegations be taken seriously, writing: “I am concerned about the timing of events here. Seven (7) days after Ms. Pease effectively raised allegations of racial discrimination regarding why she had not received a reclassification or upgrade allegedly received by other employees, she was reassigned. … Her reaction was understandable, considering that she had no prior experience regarding her new job duties.”
In her recent hearing, Karen McCarthy told members of the Governor’s Council who voiced concern about having yet another prosecutor on the parole board, “If I [were] a white man sitting up here today, this would be different.” The State House News Service reported, “After McCarthy accused the council of treating her differently than they would have a well-connected white male nominee, Devaney told McCarthy that she has also voted against white men.”
As David Harris, managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, wrote in his testimony to the Governor’s Council, “The Parole Board cannot dismantle this [racist] system. The addition of new voices and perspectives could well help the Board recognize how biases and systems of inequality affect those who come before it and consider those effects in its deliberations.”
Victoria Kelleher, incoming president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that in Massachusetts there is a “disparate impact on people being paroled based on race.” In “no way,” Kelleher said, are we meeting “the goals of justice,” adding, “We need people well-versed in behavioral sciences.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more reporting like this please donate at givetobinj.org.
Jean Trounstine is a writer, activist, and professor whose latest book is Boy With a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice. She is on the steering committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety.