Should ‘lifers’ get a chance for parole?

Bill would make those serving life sentences eligible for hearings after 25 years

SOME BEACON HILL LAWMAKERS are making another push for legislation that would allow the 1,050 Massachusetts inmates serving life prison sentences to be eligible for parole hearings.

Rep. Jay Livingstone of Boston and Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop have filed legislation that would allow all those serving life sentences – most of whom are in prison for murder – to be eligible for a parole hearing after 25 years of incarceration.

Livingstone on Thursday participated in a panel discussion on the issue before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Reform Caucus; joining him were Marc Mauer, who leads the Washington, DC-based Sentencing Project, and Donald Perry, a former inmate who served over 18 years in prison.

Mauer, one of the country’s leading experts on sentencing policy, said a record number of 206,000 people are serving life terms in prisons across the US. “Life without parole is not an alternative for the death penalty. It’s an alternative for life with parole,” he said.

The only other way an inmate serving a life sentence can get out of prison is to have his or her sentence commuted, but no governor has commuted a life sentence in Massachusetts since 1997, according to data from the Governor’s Council.

A 2016 Department of Correction annual report shows that $50,000 a year is spent on housing an inmate, with sick and elderly inmates costing up to three times as much. Mauer said older and sicker offenders in their 70s pose a diminished public safety risk and should be released and reintegrated into society to save on these costs.

A number of states are considering proposals to reduce their prison populations. In Missouri, bills have been filed that would grant a parole hearing after no more than 30 years in prison for lifers, and allow early parole for certain offenders over 65 in geriatric units. Both were proposed by Republican legislators.

“President Obama, in his last two years, issued 1,700 sentence commutations,” said Mauer. About a third of those who received commutations had been sentenced to life in prison, often as a result of the “three-strikes” laws mandating life imprisonment for some third-offense drug cases.

Perry received the maximum penalty for armed robbery in 1983, and was on parole for 14 years following nearly two decades behind bars. He now works on criminal justice reform and is a co-founder of Black Behavioral Health Network, which addresses a gap in health services for African-Americans who face incarceration.

Perry said some lifers were classified by the Department of Correction in the 1970s as no longer a threat to society, and could go out on weekends to teach at local universities. “That doesn’t exist now,” he said.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, who attended the State House event, said afterwards that she is in the “information gathering phase” when it comes to the bill to establish parole for those convicted of first-degree murder. “None of us would ever want to be defined by the worst acts of our lives. And then you have to think about that victims’ families are suffering,” she said.

“Our goal is the protection of the public’s safety,” Ryan said, but added that it’s worth assessing “when or if a person is ready to come back out into society.”