Suit alleges parole board has 'blanket practice' of denying requests to end supervision

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It was 14 years ago that Dion Young was released from prison. Since then, he said he's complied with all conditions of his parole and is working full-time and mentoring at-risk youth. At 51 years old, he decided to ask that his parole be terminated, a move allowed under state law.

"I've only been incarcerated once and learned my lesson after my first incarceration," Young said. "I followed all the guidelines that parole had laid out, plain and simple. You had rules and regulations I had to follow. I followed them, so I'm requesting that my parole be terminated."

But, he found out that terminating parole is rare in Massachusetts. His first request was denied. The parole board's ruling said that although Young adhered to all conditions of his supervision following his second-degree murder conviction, he did not "establish a compelling reason" as to why termination of his parole is in the public interest.

"I'm still paying parole fees and complying," Young said. "This is 14 years later. So where is the out from that, and what is the phase out from that system?"

Young is now among 10 plaintiffs in a civil suit against the Massachusetts Parole Board alleging it is not following the 1955 state law that allows people to seek an end to parole after a certain amount of time, depending on their offense.

"This statute exists on paper, but not in reality," the complaint reads. "The Parole Board has effectively repealed [the state law] by adopting a blanket practice of denying termination in virtually all cases."

Criminal defense attorney Eric Tennen filed the suit, saying people in Massachusetts are kept on parole for years — sometimes decades — because of myriad parole board regulations that are not outlined in the law.

"The Legislature envisioned that there might come a point in the lifespan of a parolee where they no longer require parole supervision," Tennen said. "And so if that statute is there, it's because we believe that at some point, even though that was your sentence, it's just no longer in the public interest to supervise you."

Based on public records requests, the suit said in the past six years the board has terminated parole for just two people out of almost four dozen petitions. The lawsuit  asks that the Supreme Judicial Court require the board to explain the reasons for denying parole termination requests.

"They're not being transparent about it," Tennen said of the board. "They're not explaining why they're denying people. "

Tennen said many parolees are sent back to prison because of so-called "technical violations" of their parole conditions. Those conditions can include things such as regular meetings with a parole officer, paying monthly fees, complying with curfews or travel restrictions, passing random drug and alcohol screens and not associating with people who have a criminal record. Tennen said that in 2019, 89% of parole revocations were for technical violations and not new arrests. Young said he doesn't want to live in fear of making a mistake that could put him back behind bars.

"I'm not free," Young said. "No one that's on parole in society is free. You always have the inclination that they can knock on your door and take you back to prison at any time."

Criminal justice researchers said many states are moving toward shortening parole supervision. Kendra Bradner, director of the Probation and Parole Reform Project at the Columbia University Justice Lab, pointed to states, like California and Georgia, that have moved to cap parole terms or allowed for reviews if a parolee does not have any violations.

"There's actually very little evidence that keeping people on supervision longer than 18 or 24 months carries much additional benefit," Bradner said. "It's very few people who are failing supervision after the first two years. So certainly, anything above three to five years of supervision is out of step with where the field and where states are heading."

The suit asks the SJC to issue an injunction requiring the board to create a process where all eligible parolees could have their supervision considered for termination.

The parole board is expected to respond by early next year. The state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security said it does not comment on pending litigation.

This segment aired on November 29, 2021.

Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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