Editorial Roundup: New England

Boston Globe. August 29, 2021.

Editorial: Governor Baker getting what he wants from his Parole Board

But is the slow rolling of commutation hearings what the state really needs?

In an exceedingly rare but little-noted event, late last month, the Governor’s Council rejected Governor Charlie Baker’s latest nominee for the state Parole Board.

In doing so, some on the eight-member elected council used the moment to criticize the board itself and the way it has slow-rolled the entire pardon and commutation process — the only exit ramp the prison system has for addressing either an unjust sentence or for acknowledging those inmates who have spent decades within the walls trying to make amends.

Councilor Paul DePalo noted that the seven-member panel, which also serves as the Advisory Board of Pardons, has only held two commutation hearings in the past six years. He called that a “failure” that “perpetuates injustice.”

Not another election cycle should go by before Massachusetts joins 20 other states and the District of Columbia in offering Election Day registration. But that’s only one of several essential election reforms awaiting passage when lawmakers return from their summer recess.

Councilor Eileen Duff simply called the board “inept and incompetent” for not approving more releases and acting on more pardons.

In fact, the board has received some 240 petitions for clemency since Baker has been in office. According to the department, 213 individual petitions (some prisoners have filed multiple petitions) remain active, including 21 petitions filed this year.

“I want to see a nominee who’s well-versed in the present board’s function and has a vision for how it can improve,” said Paul DePalo, one of five votes to reject Sherquita HoSang of Springfield for the job.

HoSang, a current member of the Sex Offender Registry Board and former juvenile probation officer, is also married to a Springfield police officer. The Parole Board job has been vacant since March.

The council has long criticized the makeup of the board as being heavily weighted with those coming from law enforcement. Of the six current members, one is a former prosecutor and three have backgrounds in law enforcement or corrections.

In a report issued last spring, the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Clemency Task Force suggested the board be expanded to nine members and the governor, in making his appointments, “should strive to represent the different community perspectives across the Commonwealth.”

The task force also wrote, “The right to request clemency is not a meaningful remedy unless people are afforded the opportunity to have their cases heard and decided within a reasonable amount of time. Petitioners who filed applications years ago are still waiting for hearings.”

The failure of the board to grant timely hearings — or any hearings — further skews the system.

“A lot of the petitions are done pro se (by the inmate himself without a lawyer),” said attorney Patty DeJuneas in an interview. DeJuneas, who represented William Allen, whose commutation case was heard in June, added, “Very few lawyers want to get involved in something with so little chance of success.”

Among those testifying in Allen’s favor was Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz, who told the board, “This is one of those rare cases where a sentence of first-degree murder warrants reconsideration.”

Cruz’s office prosecuted Allen in 1997 for a 1994 robbery in which Purvis Bester was killed. The man charged with the actual killing pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was paroled more than a decade ago. Allen was charged under the state’s “joint venture” doctrine, which has since been modified by a 2017 decision by the Supreme Judicial Court.

“Principles of fairness and equity require that we take this into account when considering whether Allen’s sentence remains a just outcome in this case,” Cruz said.

The board has yet to issue a decision in the case.

In the only other commutation hearing held during the Baker administration, the board did vote unanimously to recommend clemency for Thomas Koonce, a Black former Marine serving a life sentence for the 1987 killing of a New Bedford man. Koonce, then a 20-year-old home on leave, maintained he acted in self-defense and turned down a chance to plead guilty to manslaughter, which would have gotten him a 5-to-10-year sentence.

During his 28 years in prison, the board noted, Koonce earned a bachelor’s degree from the Boston University Prison Program, graduating magna cum laude, and has been “heavily involved” in Alternatives to Violence and the Victim Offender Education Group. The board based its recommendation on Koonce’s “extraordinary commitment to self-development and self-improvement.”

That decision was sent to Baker last January. He has yet to act on it.

The MBA task force called clemency in this state “an underutilized tool.”

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, a Democrat who came into office the same time as Baker, has become a national leader in reforming the way his state issues both commutations and pardons — not by changing the structure so much as making generous use of the existing system and encouraging inmates to apply for clemency.

Pennsylvania has one of the nation’s largest populations of people sentenced to life in prison, with about 1,200 sentenced under that state’s equivalent of the joint venture doctrine.

Earlier this year the governor granted clemency to 13 petitioners serving life sentences, bringing to 38 his total since taking office. The state’s five-member Board of Pardons, chaired by the lieutenant governor, has during that time heard 79 cases and recommended clemency in 42 of them.

It has also recommended 256 pardons thus far this year and 458 during 2020. Wolf approved 438 of the latter.

The Pennsylvania governor’s office credits a “user-friendly” application process for both.

And no doubt that has made a difference. But it’s also a case of personnel being policy — and a governor who is not risk-averse getting what he wants from the system. During the previous Pennsylvania Republican administration, the board heard two cases in four years. None got a favorable recommendation, sparing Governor Tom Corbett the need to make any decisions on clemency.

Governors generally get what they want from the boards they appoint. Charlie Baker may indeed be getting what he wants from his Advisory Board of Pardons, but in an era ripe for genuine criminal justice reform, it might not be what he — or Massachusetts — really needs.

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Boston Herald. August 31, 2021.

Editorial: No parole for Sean Ouillette’s killer

Rod Matthews is sorry.

Rod Matthews cries.

Rod Matthews struggles with his actions.

None of that changes the fact that he murdered his 14-year-old classmate with a baseball bat in 1986.

Matthews, who killed fellow teen Shaun Ouillette and was one of the first children to be tried as an adult in Massachusetts, was denied parole three times over the 35 years he’s been in prison.

A lot has happened in 35 years. To hear Matthews tell it, it’s been a journey of rehabilitation and therapy.

For Jeanne Quinn, Sean’s mother, it’s been a nightmare, made even more painful with visits to the parole board to fight to keep her son’s killer behind bars.

She must relive the panic of the day her son didn’t come home, the searching, the terror, the unfathomable pain when his body was found beaten in the woods three weeks later where Matthews had left it, showing it to friends in the interim.

Quinn had to do this again in June, when Matthews made his fourth appearance before the state’s parole board, trying again to win his freedom.

As the Patriot Ledger reported, Matthews claimed he was no longer the “emotionally disturbed” teen that committed a “sick and senseless act.”

Why did he do it? Teasing led him to violence, he said. Mental illness. His family was dysfunctional. His parents divorced. He told his friends about wanting to kill and apparently they didn’t “push back” enough.

But of course, he takes full responsibility and he’s “deeply sorry.”

Cue the tears.

“In taking Sean’s life, I decimated his family,” the 48-year-old Matthews said. “I continue to struggle with what I did … I truly wish that this nightmare never happened.”

This was not a “nightmare that happened.”

This was a nightmare that Matthews caused.

Matthews was the nightmare.

Since his last failed bid for parole in 2016, Matthews’ crime was the subject of an Investigation Discovery documentary “Dead of Winter.” In it, Jeanne Quinn describes the life and loss of her son Sean, and the excruciating days when she believed he was alive and would come home.

Quinn spoke of opening the windows in her Canton home, baking trays and trays of cookies and setting them on the sills so the smells would waft and hopefully Sean would smell them and be lead back to her. Quinn did this with the Thanksgiving meal as well.

All the time his body lay in the woods and Matthews denied knowledge of his whereabouts.

At the June parole hearing, Quinn reminded the board of an essential truth: “There is no solace for a mother that loses a child. None.”

Matthews said he learned empathy in prison. He’s volunteered in the medical ward of the state prison in Shirley.

Good for him.

But Rod Matthews took more from Jeanne Quinn than a son, more from Matthew and Yvonne than a brother — he took the chance for grandchildren, nephews and nieces, big gatherings and family memories. Who knows what Sean might have been, what he might have contributed to the community? What his children would be doing now?

Sean’s pictures stop at his freshman year in high school. Matthews saw to that. No amount of tears before the parole board, or psychology buzzwords du jour makes any difference.

Whether Matthews will kill again is a small part of the picture — he’s in prison for what he did, not for what he might do. And on both fronts, the parole board needs to keep him locked up.

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Rutland Herald. September 2, 2021.

Editorial: New hope

In our interview last week with former governor Peter Shumlin, he listed a handful of lessons that were learned as a result of Tropical Storm Irene, which devastated Vermont a decade ago last week.

Shumlin said Irene was the moment for Vermont when climate change went from a theory to a reality. The damage, which affected some 225 of Vermont’s 251 towns and cities, caused millions in damage, and forced the state to rethink how it was going to rebuild in order to avoid another infrastructure breakdown when — not if — another Irene-grade storm hit the state.

Shumlin and members of his administration knew it was a pivotal moment in the history of the state, because getting recovery wrong was only going to lead to more problems in the future.

“I believe that (climate change) is the biggest challenge humankind has ever faced,” the Democratic three-term governor said. “If there is a silver lining, it’s that tragedies are leading to a more livable future. … It gives me hope. I am much more optimistic. Ten years later, that’s progress.”

The dialogue has changed. More people are thinking about their dependence on fossil fuels, and the relevance of renewable energy. More Vermonters are recycling and composting. And due to the global pandemic, there has even been a push toward supporting local food systems and gardening again.

Irene was the first step to the new future.

Neale Lunderville, who was Shumlin’s first Irene Recovery Officer in the first four months after the storm, wrote a commentary that appeared in Perspective last month. In it, Lunderville, who now works for Vermont Gas Systems, wrote, “The severe weather, fires and droughts we’ve experienced in the decade since remind us Irene was not a one-off event. Climate change is real, and the outlook is getting worse. This is confirmed by the recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which found ‘human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years.’ That’s why Vermont Gas Systems is moving forward with a plan — and a new approach — to transform our energy system to lead in the fight against climate change.”

Lunderville worked with Republican governor Jim Douglas in various capacities; then worked for Shumlin on the recovery; and has since also worked with Gov. Phil Scott on the state’s COVID response. Across many years of public service, Lunderville has a long lens from which to view the biggest issues facing Vermont. And for him today, the head of VGS, to be touting the effects of climate change seems surprising.

“When people ask how our state will achieve its clean energy transformation, I find myself thinking of the challenges we’ve faced together. When Tropical Storm Irene struck a decade ago, it took teamwork and ingenuity to clear the rubble and reopen our state,” he wrote. “Through the lens of these disasters, we see a powerful lesson to prevent an even bigger catastrophe. By working arm-in-arm to help neighbors in need, we can achieve real progress and make lasting change for the better.”

This week, President Joe Biden seemed to have his own “aha moment” relative to the state of the nation.

Yesterday, while pledging robust federal help for the Northeastern and Gulf states battered by Hurricane Ida and for Western states beset by wildfires, he sent a similar message: Without change, we can expect more of the same.

“These extreme storms, and the climate crisis, are here,” Biden said in a White House speech. “We must be better prepared. We need to act.”

In turn, the president said he will further press Congress to pass his nearly $1 trillion infrastructure bill to improve roads, bridges, the electric grid and sewer systems. The proposal intends to ensure that the vital networks connecting cities and states and the country as a whole can withstand the flooding, whirlwinds and damage caused by increasingly dangerous weather, according to The Associated Press. Biden also stressed that the challenge transcends the politics of a deeply divided nation because of the threats posed by the storms and fires.

“It’s a matter of life and death, and we’re all in this together,” the president said.

Scientists say climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather events — such as large tropical storms, and the droughts and heatwaves that create conditions for vast wildfires. U.S. weather officials recently reported that July 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded in 142 years of record-keeping. Ida was the fifth-most powerful storm to strike the U.S. when it hit Louisiana on Sunday with maximum winds of 150 mph, likely causing tens of billions of dollars in flood, wind and other damage, including to the electrical grid, the AP noted.

The lessons are real. Our leaders, past and present, see the effects. Now we must set policy, support policy, and execute policy that, as Shumlin emphasized, lead “to a more livable future.”

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Portland Press Herald. September 1, 2021.

Editorial: Maine leading the way on COVID rental relief

Housing challenges remain, here and everywhere else. But unlike residents of other states, Mainers are getting the assistance they need.

Since the start of the pandemic, tens of billions of dollars in federal money has been earmarked for rent relief.

But as the COVID-related eviction moratorium was whittled down last month, precious little of it had made its way to renters and landlords — just 11% of the total funding had been dispersed as of the end of July, with some states barely moving any at all.

Those states could learn something from Maine, which has done better than most in getting support to tenants, so much so that the changes in the eviction moratorium likely won’t have much impact here. Others should follow our lead in implementing policies that reach people who need help.

There’s little time to waste. According to a Census Bureau survey, an estimated 1.2 million households face eviction in the next two months over failure to pay rent.

Yet by the end of July, just $5.1 billion out of the $46.5 billion rental aid program had been spent. The money can be spent for up to three years, but with so many people facing housing problems now, it was expected that the program would be considerably frontloaded.

Of the 2.8 million Americans who had applied by the time of the report, only about 500,000 had received assistance, with another 1.5 million waiting for an answer.

What’s more, it’s estimated that more than 60% of vulnerable renters nationwide had not applied, likely because they don’t know about it.

Maine, by contrast, had given out more than $46 million to more than 9,200 households by late July.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t housing issues in Maine — affordability will remain a statewide problem until more housing is built, and too many Mainers pay far too much of their paychecks to rent, and there’s evidence that low-income renters continue to struggle to maintain safe, stable housing.

But housing advocates are confident that, when it comes to COVID rental relief, the most vulnerable Mainers are being reached.

Not every state can say that.

In some cases, the slow start in distributing the rent relief has been reversed. New York state had only given out $117,000 by the end of July, but it’s now one of the highest-performing states. Louisiana, where in June 266,000 renters said they had “no confidence” they could pay rent, only 976 had been served by the program by July; just a few weeks later, it was up to about 3,400 people served.

But according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, at least 15 states hadn’t distributed even 5% of the funding they received — and certainly not because people don’t need it.

The Biden administration is trying to make the application process more simple, though some local officials are hesitant to speed it up because of fears of potential fraud.

They shouldn’t be. There’s no evidence that fraud is a problem in the states that are more quickly providing relief. Whatever problems are caused by fast-tracking the application process are minimal compared to those that could come when millions of Americans find their housing at risk.

The Biden administration must do what it can to reach renters in states where that is not happening. Every idea being discussed — from using the courts to reach vulnerable tenants facing eviction to directly reaching out to landlords — should be on the table, as should everything learned by states like Maine that are doing it right.

The president should use every available resource to make sure people don’t unnecessarily lose their homes.

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Hearst Connecticut Media. September 1, 2021.

Editorial: CT can’t leave money on the table and residents on the street

For too many Connecticut households, finding the money to pay the rent is a crisis right now. Help is available, and they face a deadline to seize it.

At least 8,828 tenants in Connecticut have already received federal aid to pay rent.

That should offer some scope of how bad the problem is during the pandemic. After all, 8,828 is more than the population of 61 of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities.

Sounds pretty bad, right?

Now consider that 63,450 state renters were behind on payments as of early August, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Pulse Household Survey. Nationally, the survey identified nearly 8 million people backed up on rent.

Many people who lost income during the pandemic got a reprieve one year ago when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initiated the eviction moratorium. That was set to run out Oct. 3, and many tenants were hoping for an extension. Instead, the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the clock Aug. 26, ruling that the CDC exceeded its authority.

If that’s not enough stress for renters, another clock is running out as well.

Connecticut was allotted nearly $236 million in federal funding, but had spent less than one-third (about 29%, or $68.8 million) of that as of Friday.

The distribution delay was reasonable because UniteCT had to be created, which Dawn Parker, director of the program, compared to “building the plane while we were flying it.”

The plane is now in the air, but will need to soar in the weeks ahead. Sixty-five percent of the funds must be obligated before Oct. 1 or be surrendered. Meanwhile, Gov. Ned Lamont authorized the program, but his emergency powers run out Sept. 30. Some state lawmakers are seeking a special session to extend the program beyond month’s end.

That’s a lot of red tape (and there’s miles more of it) for an effort that can save lives. Some of it is necessary, as programs such as this can be targeted for fraud.

Landlords are not the villains here. They need to pay their own bills. But, as living with COVID becomes a new norm, it’s important to remember some of the ancillary motivations for the eviction moratorium.

High on that list is that sending more people to live in shelters, with relatives and in the streets will only contribute to the spread of the coronavirus.

To qualify for aid, Connecticut residents must have household incomes below 80% of the area median income and be able to demonstrate they were financially impacted by the pandemic. Eligible residents can collect up to $15,000 in rental assistance and $1,500 in electricity assistance payments.

For applications, go to UniteCT, or call for assistance at 1-844-864-8328.

If you know someone struggling to pay the rent, this is the chance to help. Leaving money on the table and state residents on the street should not be a consequence of red tape.

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