Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Massachusetts' governor considers blanket commutations to ease prison overcrowding

Massachusetts' Governor Deval Patrick said he would be "very interested" in commuting the sentences of a segment of the inmate population if it would relieve overcrowding in prisons, reported the Lowell Sun. "I have a lot of concerns about the impact on our criminal-justice system, and on the prisons in particular, of non-violent drug offenders and the mandatory minimum around that. We've moved some legislation, tried to make some changes there, and if there was a way to relieve the crowding in the prisons by commuting a class of those cases, I'd be very interested in doing it," Patrick said.

The prison system is almost uniformly crowded beyond the design capacity of the facilities. The two maximum-security prisons are overcrowded with an average occupancy rate of 121 percent, as of Dec. 16, according to the Department of Correction.

The 12 medium security prisons are an average 145 percent occupied, well above the design capacity, with only two -- the medium-security portion of Cedar Junction in Walpole and the Shattuck Hospital Correctional Unit in Jamaica Plain -- under capacity. Houses of correction and jails are occupied at an average of 128 percent of capacity, with Essex County experiencing the greatest overcrowding.

Patrick's proposal comes as a surprise.  He has neither commuted nor pardoned any offenders in his seven years in office.

The last commutation in Massachusetts was granted to Joseph Salvati, at the recommendation of Gov. Bill Weld. In February 1997, the eight-member Governor's Council voted unanimously to commute the first-degree-murder life sentence of Salvati, whose conviction was later overturned when a judge concluded the FBI hid exculpatory evidence.

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