Life On Lifetime Parole In Massachusetts

“I am now in the same predicament as I was when I first got out of prison.”

Khalid Mustafa attempted what many considered unthinkable: he tried to sue the Massachusetts Parole Board.

Specifically, Mustafa took legal action against the body for decisions under former Chair Gloriann Moroney. It was Moroney’s 2021 three-line decision that denied Mustafa’s petition to terminate his parole.

At 18 years old, Mustafa was convicted of second-degree murder, and before he became eligible for parole, served 15 years behind bars for taking the life of Troy Willis in 1976. He has spent 31 years on parole, which he compared to “dancing on banana peels” in a phone interview.

“You have to be careful and do what you must to stay out of trouble,” Mustafa said.

The Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice reports that those on parole—serving the remainder of one’s sentence in the community under supervision—have stringent requirements. They must have “gainful employment,” are subject to home searches and urine tests at any time, cannot associate with others who have a criminal record, and have strict travel requirements. Many are forced to wear ankle monitors with GPS tracking, and parole can be revoked for far less than a new crime. Most are reincarcerated for missing appointments with parole officers, drinking alcohol, failing to pay fines or restitution, or failing to maintain steady employment, i.e. technical violations.

Mustafa’s nearly 70-page parole termination packet was spearheaded by his parole officer (PO) and the PO’s boss, who both concurred Mustafa’s many years on parole were enough. Although his paperwork elaborated on what his attorney, Jeffrey Harris, called an “excellent record” and incorporated 11 support letters including one from Sen. Liz Miranda, Moroney concluded he had not made “a compelling case” to be released from lifetime parole supervision and she prohibited an appeal of that decision to the full board.

“I can’t appeal? What, aren’t we in America?” Mustafa said.

With Harris representing him, Mustafa appeared before Suffolk Superior Court Judge Rosemary Connolly on Monday, May 8 via Zoom. With more than 30 supporters logged on beside them, they argued the right to do exactly that: appeal the Moroney decision. 

As we learned hours before publishing this article, Connolly denied Mustafa’s motion to reverse Moroney’s decision. Still, his case speaks to the struggle that hundreds of people in his position have faced in the Bay State, and will continue to endure under the current system.

Before the lawsuit

Massachusetts law allows formerly-incarcerated lifers to petition the board to terminate parole after one year. In practice, however, until Tina Hurley became chair last November, the 449 lifers on parole had little hope for success—even after a decade of perfect behavior on parole. (Per 2019 data, a total of 1,348 were under parole supervision; a recent public records request found lifers are nearly 30% of that population.)

According to Attorney Patricia Garin, who co-directs the Northeastern School of Law Prisoners’ Rights Clinic, “Under prior boards chaired by Moroney, Paul Treseler, and Josh Wall, there was no hope of getting off parole. Not one of my many clients who sought termination under those chairs had their parole terminated. The common theme among all my clients is that they don’t feel fully accepted as members of the community while on parole; they live in constant fear.”

Mustafa, who earned his master’s degree in community development, policy, and practice at the University of New Hampshire, said the “best thing about parole is that it takes you out from behind the wall so you can build a life.” But he also shared some chilling stories about his experience. Traveling out of state while on parole is particularly difficult. On a trip to Washington, DC to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, he had to go to several police stations before an officer agreed to sign a document stating he had checked in and was allowed to be in the area. In Las Vegas, he spent a day waiting to be interviewed and fingerprinted before he could attend a Cirque du Soleil performance.

Mustafa said his desire to be off parole is certainly exacerbated by the fact that officers come and go. “Sometimes you get POs who are just difficult,” he said, recalling one who wanted someone else to call in monthly to tell him how Mustafa was doing. “Some boards change a person’s parole officer because they think the supervisors are getting too close to their clients,” he added.

In 2022, Mustafa lost his job as an IT person with the Timothy Smith Network, a nonprofit organization in Roxbury. “It was during the pandemic, and they held onto me as long as they could, but finally they had to lay me off,” he said. Now he’s out of work, over 65, and his criminal record prevents him from getting jobs that he’s qualified for. “I can’t seek positions that require travel,” said Mustafa, adding, “I am now in the same predicament as I was when I first got out of prison.”

Tina Hurley became chair of the Mass Parole Board on Nov. 15, 2022 and the following month her board promulgated new regulations for those seeking to terminate parole. According to information obtained through a public records request, prior to that date, 32 petitions had languished in front of other board chairs. The new regs require a positive vote from the body to get a hearing; only then will the board vote for or against termination of parole. Other revelations from that data include:

  • In addition to the 32 petitions filed before December 2022, there have been four new petitions filed as of that date, bringing the total to 36 before the Hurley Board

  • The board has voted on a total of 16 petitions so far and 20 still need to be voted on

  • The board has denied six petitions without a hearing, while 10 have been granted hearings

  • The board has held eight hearings, and two are pending, most likely scheduled for June and July 2023

  • Following hearings with the full board in April or May 2023, so far one lifer has been granted release from parole and one has been denied

Mustafa’s petition, filed in 2020 under Moroney, took almost three years to get in front of Connolly. Moroney, like Wall and Treseler, is now a district court judge, and did not appear at his court hearing. In requesting a reversal of the decision, Mustafa asked the judge to say that Moroney abused her discretion in denying him termination. Mustafa thought that if they knew their decisions could be challenged in court, board members might behave differently. 

“It would create a different conversation in dealing with the Parole Board,” he said. 

The national movement to rethink parole

While research has shown that parole provides a “reintegrative alternative to incarceration,” there are racial disparities in how those released from prison are treated. According to Miriam Krinsky and Monica Fuhrmann, both experts at the nonprofit Fair and Just Prosecution, “Black and Latino/a people… remain on probation and parole longer than similarly situated white people and are more likely to be charged with violations and revoked to prison.”

They also write that “changing the role of the officer from simply an enforcer of the rules to an agent of change is a formidable task, but one that could pay great dividends.” This might be particularly true for people like Mustafa. According to the nonprofit research organization the Urban Institute, “Supervision does not play much of a role among those incarcerated for a violent offense. … It takes a mix of treatment and surveillance to change offender behavior.”

However, treatment is difficult if you are a parole officer and have 75-100 clients (and not much time per week for each one), as a 2020 Ohio report revealed about caseloads. Ohio has now reduced officer caseloads to 60, but some states aren’t so lucky; in 2020, “Alabama’s 300 parole and probation officers supervise[d] more than 27,000.”

In 2020, 55 prosecutors and attorneys general from across the country joined probation and parole professionals in writing a public statement supporting the need to rethink supervision. This included organizations with very different missions ranging from the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) to Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice. Calling themselves Executives Transforming Probation and Parole, they issued a “Statement on the Future of Probation and Parole in the United States” highlighting an end to lifetime parole and stating that parole terms should be “no longer than 18 months” and “measured by a balance of safety concerns and an individual’s goals.”

“Parole systems should be less punitive, more effective, and focused solely on the individuals who need support in lieu of confinement in order to keep our communities safe and healthy,” the statement read. “Some people do not need supervision to build safe and healthy lives for themselves after an interaction with the justice system.”

A lack of data

No national organization has gathered parole termination data from individual states. Asked about that informational chasm, Nazgol Ghandnoosh, the co-director of research at the DC policy org the Sentencing Project, wrote in an email, “This is something that we plan to look into in the future but we don’t have any good information to share right now.”

Julia Laskorunsky, a research scholar at the Robina Institute, wrote in an email, “In most states parole release means that someone serves the remainder of their sentence on supervision. Thus, petitioning to shorten the parole term is akin to shortening the original sentence, which gets into murky territory with the courts.”

Some states, like Massachusetts, however, have it written into law that a person may petition to end their term of parole providing that it is not a public safety issue.

In 2019, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) released a report grading parole systems across the United States. Mass got an F, while 15 other states received an F-. On paper, a number of states, each with their own particular regulations, statutes, or laws, allow petitioners with life sentences to request an end to parole supervision. PPI pointed out that these include (but are not limited to) New York, New Jersey, California, Hawaii, and Colorado.

In these states, however, as in Massachusetts, there are no concrete numbers available to prove people have been released from parole termination for the past 30, 20, 10, or even five years. While one is allowed to petition for termination, it is impossible to tell what has been actuated without data.

Illinois abolished discretionary parole in 1978; it’s one of 16 states to abolish parole granted by parole boards, which many researchers see as taking away second chances. But in a phone interview, Jennifer Soble told me that parole hasn’t disappeared in Illinois. The executive director of the Illinois Prison Project (IPP), an advocacy organization, explained that lifers sentenced before 1978 can still earn parole, and wrote in an email that “commutations have made people eligible for parole.” Commutations allow a sentence to be reduced; for example, in murder cases, from first (no parole) to second-degree (parole eligibility). Soble said she knows at least 10 people who have become eligible for parole through having their sentence commuted.

Mustafa with lawyers, Jeffrey Harris (left) and Eric Tennen (right) in 2022 (at one point, spearheading a class-action lawsuit)

While behind bars in Illinois, Anthony Jones, whose sentence was life with no parole for first-degree murder, found IPP’s Commutation Toolkit and, as Soble said, used it “to write his own clemency petition.” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker granted him a commutation, making him eligible for parole. IPP then represented him at his parole hearing, and he was released in 2021.

“He would have been on parole for life, but was released from parole early on April 27, 2023 after his PO petitioned for his early release,” Soble said. “He works for us full time as a community navigator, and is in the process of closing on his first home.”

The decision

Everyone contacted for this article concurred that more hard data is needed on parole termination for lifers.

In making her decision regarding Mustafa, Judge Connolly would not have had much research on previous cases to consult. Because of the ruling, Mustafa will not likely be able to end his parole through the courts. He will need to resubmit his parole packet to the board.    

Prior to learning about Connolly’s decision, he said, “When you give somebody an opportunity and they prove themselves, do you still hold them down or do you give people a real second chance?” Mustafa added, “Full release shouldn’t kick in when you are bedridden and sick.”

This article is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more reporting like this, make a contribution at givetobinj.org

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