From secret hiring practices to a revolving door of political appointees, the Mass Parole Board is a “black hole,” and “lives are at risk.”
In the spring of 2021, Ms. Smith, whose name has been changed for this article, heard from a friend that there was a vacancy on the Massachusetts Parole Board. Board member Karen McCarthy, a former prosecutor, had left in March 2021 after a tumultuous nomination process in June 2019. McCarthy served less than two years on a board stacked with others who, like her, had a background in law enforcement. Board members in Mass are appointed by the governor for five-year terms and only one member currently has both experience and training in psychology.
Smith searched the Mass Parole Board website for information about the job. The site explains that parole is the supervised release of a prisoner to serve the remainder of their sentence in the community, and lists details about hearings and some data, but there is no posting about board vacancies, no description of the job, and zero information about any board member—no bio, experience, or length of term served.
Armed with social science credentials as well as experience working in prisons, Smith thought she’d be a good candidate to replace McCarthy, who had exited for a position as an assistant clerk magistrate in Springfield District Court.
The friend forwarded Smith a little-known tab on the Mass.gov website called “Boards and Commissions,” where she poked around to learn how to submit her application. “It wasn’t easy,” Smith said in an interview. She heard nothing for three weeks and then an email came asking her to resubmit—something had gone wrong. It took numerous emails and phone calls to find out that after a few tries, her materials had been received.
“I felt as if I was yelling into a black hole,” Smith recalls. “Being an interested candidate and as resourceful as I am, knowing there was a vacancy on the board, I wasn’t even able to determine how to get there.” She has heard nothing since applying months ago.
If you want to find out how the Parole Board works, the selection process of members, or what will happen when you’re on parole, good luck. According to a months-long investigation, DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism have found a shocking lack of transparency that only begins with the non-existence of public postings for vacancies at the board.
Is it what you know or who?
Governor’s Councilor Eileen Duff, in a phone interview in October, said of the eight councilors whose job it is to approve the governor’s nominees, “We have repeatedly asked for a short list of applicants to the Parole Board and not received them.” Duff added, “Under this administration, what has caused colossal damage, Baker has used the Parole Board for political nepotism. If you put someone there who isn’t qualified, people’s lives are at risk.”
This past July, the Governor’s Council rejected Baker’s pick, Sherquita Hosang, in a 5-3 vote, saying she was unprepared for the board. This was the first of hundreds of judicial and board nominations that they had opposed in Gov. Charlie Baker’s two terms.
Writing for the nonprofit Marshall Project in 2015, journalist Beth Schwartzapfel reported, “In 44 states, the board is wholly appointed by the governor, and the well-paid positions can become gifts for former aides and political allies.” In Mass, the median average wage per year for a board employee is $88,986, with current board chair Gloriann Moroney earning $153,000 in 2020. Before being appointed to the Parole Board, Moroney worked as a prosecutor at the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office with Judge Paul Treseler. Treseler worked for Suffolk County as an assistant DA before he became board chair. Prior to Treseler, another Suffolk County assistant DA, now-judge Joshua Wall, served as chairman.
A little known fact is that Parole Board members got hefty raises last year. Colette Santa, who was paid $124,367 in 2019, earned $141,106 in 2020—a $16,739, or 13.4% yearly increase. Other board members earned more than a 10% increase.
Moroney was appointed to the board less than three years ago, in January, 2019, and became chair in April of that same year. At Moroney’s confirmation hearing before the Governor’s Council, Duff asked if she would commit to staying on the board for her five-year term of office. She did not answer. Now, it is rumored that she has already applied for a judgeship.
We attempted to interview Moroney for this article, but were instructed by Timothy McGuirk, deputy director of communications for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS), to “submit questions” for “the team” to answer. We submitted questions; they were not answered. In fact, McGuirk did not respond. In other words, Moroney refused to speak with us.
Massachusetts is currently one of 22 states that withhold from prisoners information upon which boards base their decisions—tests to show a prisoner’s risk of release, disciplinary reports, the nature of the crime, etc. Attorney James Pingeon, litigation director for Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS), said in an interview that those seeking parole or their attorneys cannot get the results of risk assessments unless they ask for them, and even then, they only receive some of the results. Pingeon said he has been told, “If they [prisoners] knew how we go about establishing this score, they could beat the system.”
The Parole Board is not required to record non-lifer hearings, and they prohibit counsel from attending, so there is no official record for the approximately 3,500 prisoners serving non-life sentences who had parole hearings in 2020.
According to a 2021 letter to Gov. Baker signed by more than 70 community groups, “The non-lifer parole applicant’s right to appeal an adverse decision is meaningless with no recording of the proceeding and no representation.”
For those serving life sentences, there is somewhat more transparency. Prisoner Gordon Haas and the Lifers Group at Norfolk MCI reported on 119 parole decisions from lifer hearings held in 2020. These decisions are posted online, and anyone can request tapes and written decisions of hearings through public records. However, as Haas pointed out in his report, the decisions “provid[e] little or no specific guidance to denied lifers as to which program areas needed to be completed in order to address their needs before their next parole hearing.”
Lifers who apply for parole are currently waiting seven to 10 months after the hearing to get their decisions—much longer than the 60-day average when Dr. Charlene Bonner acted as interim chair prior to Treseler, during a 10-month period from 2014 to 2015.
“I’d like to know who is exactly writing the decisions and why they are taking so long,” Councilor Duff said in an interview. “They are giving them [the decisions] to attorneys who aren’t even in the hearings to write from notes? The decisions should be written by people who were in the room.”
Pingeon described the decisions as “boilerplate.” He added, “I have the sense the Parole Board is making decisions based on gut feeling … and they shouldn’t be. “There should be published criteria.”
In contrast, some state boards, in Georgia for example, classify parole decisions as “state secrets,” while Connecticut actually uses public access TV to broadcast its hearings,” reports the Marshall Project. In 2019, Jeremy Pelzer, writing for cleveland.com, reported that the Ohio Parole Board was engaging in an overhaul after a former board member accused the “mostly white” board of “biased or racist reasoning” in their “secretive and arbitrary” decisions.
Policies can be secret
There is a statute enabling the Mass Parole Board to terminate the parole of a person with good conduct if it is “in the public interest.” However, critics hold that the statute is essentially null and void with this Parole Board.
In late November, Attorney Eric Tennen filed a lawsuit asking the Mass Supreme Judicial Court to demand that the board explain why it is denying all requests from petitioners to terminate their paroles. In spite of “good behavior,” years on parole without incident or substance abuse, since 2015, at least 47 men and women on parole, including the 10 plaintiffs in the suit, have been categorically denied termination of their lengthy paroles, and all without reasons why.
An example is Arthur Bembury, who was paroled from a second-degree murder sentence in 2005 and placed on lifetime parole (as are all who earn parole on a parole-eligible life sentence). Bembury is now the executive director of Partakers Inc., an organization that reduces recidivism by educating prisoners. Bembury has also established a reentry program with Brandeis University and works closely with the Department of Correction. He was recently denied the chance to terminate his parole.
Stats show that those who are released after a murder conviction are not likely to recommit a violent crime. According to a Sentencing Project report from June 2021, “of 272,111 prison releases across 15 states…among those released after serving time for murder, 1% were arrested for another murder and 17% were arrested for another type of violent offense.”
John Carner, former spokesperson for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, said in the report, “Individuals who are released on parole after serving sentences for murder consistently have the lowest recidivism rate of any offenders.”
In New York, those on parole with life sentences can apply to the Parole Board to terminate parole after three years. In New Jersey, it takes 15 years before one can petition. In Nevada, 10 years. But in all of those states, Bembury would have been eligible.
One of the problems, said Pingeon of PLS, which is also part of the lawsuit, is that the board “does not tell people there is a process by which they can seek to have their parole terminated.” They say there is a “policy,” says Pingeon, and “policies can be secret.” The lawsuit claims there should be a regulation. Pingeon explained that with a regulation, a public hearing would be required by law, and people would have input before the regulation was finalized..
Where’s the info?
Dion Young, one of the named plaintiffs in Attorney Tennen’s lawsuit, was released from a Massachusetts prison in 2008, and currently resides in Texas where he founded a program for youth called “Redemption.” In an interview, Young said that after leaving prison, he had no idea “what to expect on parole, what a parole officer does, and just basic knowledge of what a parolee will have to go through.”
Another person on lifetime parole, Karter Reed, co-chair of the Campaign to End Life Without Parole (CELWOP, in which this reporter participates), told me, “When I see the blue lights zooming behind me, I feel like my life could be over.” Reed said he did get pulled over on I-495 by a state trooper who gave him “the third degree” about being on parole. Although Reed had permission, the trooper “didn’t like that I was traveling from Massachusetts to Maine.”
Reed added, “Parole is not part of the punishment.” Yet he and Young both said they have to walk on eggshells, fully aware that even during COVID, 78% of people on parole who were returned to custody between March and June 2020 were sent back for technical violations, not for new crimes. Of those returned to custody, 39% were eventually re-paroled, while 61% went back to prison and lost their parole. Taking a drink, an “unauthorized” cell phone, “associating” with another formerly incarcerated person, or a speeding ticket can send someone back to prison for years.
Lack of access
Calendar year 2020 “was a particularly challenging time for the Parole Board, according to its annual report. Lifer hearings were held on Webex for a year because of COVID, beginning in June 2020. Although court business and many trials continued on Zoom, and most agencies such as the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and the Gaming Commission held public hearings where people “appeared” on virtual technology to testify, that was not the case with the Parole Board.
Despite the fact that lifer parole hearings are, by statute, public hearings, the Parole Board would not allow public access visually. They only permitted camera access to parole applicants, their attorneys, and those who testified for or against. The board said Webex would crash with too many people on it. Even reporters had to call in to listen to, but not see, “public hearings.” I spent five hours on the phone in order to report on Thomas Koonce’s commutation hearing.
Gaining access to public parole records can cost so much money that one might argue the board prohibits access to public records. Since records of decision (ROD) for non-lifers are not publicly posted on the Parole Board’s website, PLS requested for its work a few years ago, “a copy of all parole records of decision from the month of May 2017 for individuals not serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole.”
The board first said it would charge $5,237.50 “to process this production,” but after asking for a detailed description of the work involved, PLS got a reduced rate of $2,618.75. By law, public records requests in Mass are supposed to take 10 days to produce. Apparently, the non-lifer parole records (even though PLS had only requested one month of ROD) were not so readily available. The board said they had to dig through “427 Master files” to get the records.
The board’s bill came with this caveat: “We estimate that it will likely take the Parole Board six months to fulfill your request.”