The Brief but Complicated Life of the Medical Parole Statute

by Jessica Conklin

Legal Analysis

In April 2018, the Massachusetts legislature passed the Criminal Justice Reform Act (the “Act”). In addition to enacting sweeping changes in the areas of bail, juvenile justice, diversion from prosecution, and reentry services, the Act established a statutory right to medical parole for all eligible inmates. The medical parole statute, codified at G.L. c. 127, §119A, provides terminally ill and permanently incapacitated prisoners who do not pose a public safety risk the right to be released from custody, regardless of the crime of conviction or the time remaining on their sentence. Until the Act was passed, Massachusetts was one of only a handful of states without this remedy.  

Medical Parole Basics

Under the Act, petitioning prisoners who meet the qualifying criteria “shall be released on medical parole.” G.L. c. 127 §119(e) (emphasis added). All inmates, including those sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, have a right to medical parole if they qualify. To be eligible for release, a prisoner must meet three conditions: (i) the prisoner must be terminally ill or permanently incapacitated; (ii) the prisoner must be able to live and remain at liberty without violating the law; and (iii) the prisoner’s release must not be incompatible with the welfare of society.   

As to the first condition, the Act defines “terminal illness” and “permanent incapacity,” but does not list specific qualifying illnesses or incapacities. Terminal illness is defined as “a condition that appears incurable, as determined by a licensed physician, that will likely cause the death of the prisoner in not more than 18 months and that is so debilitating that the prisoner does not pose a public safety risk.” Permanent incapacitation is defined as “a physical or cognitive incapacitation that appears irreversible, as determined by a licensed physician, and that is so debilitating that the prisoner does not pose a public safety risk.” The Act does not provide guidance on the second and third conditions; that is, it does not list factors to evaluate an inmate’s ability to live at liberty without violating the law or circumstances that might render an inmate’s release incompatible with the welfare of society.

Procedurally, the prisoner, an attorney, the prisoner’s relative, a medical provider of a correctional facility, or a Department of Correction (“DOC”) staff member may petition the superintendent or sheriff of the facility where the inmate is being held for medical parole on behalf of the inmate. The Act does not prescribe a particular form for the petition. The Act requires expeditious review and a timely decision of medical parole petitions by setting specific deadlines after receipt of the petition. Within 21 days of a superintendent’s or sheriff’s receipt of a medical parole petition, the superintendent or sheriff must provide to the DOC Commissioner (“the Commissioner”): (i) a recommendation regarding release; (ii) a medical parole plan;[1] (iii) a written diagnosis by a licensed physician; and (iv) an assessment of the risk for violence that the prisoner poses to society. G.L. 127, §119A(c)(1). The Commissioner, who is the administrative decision maker, then has 45 days to issue a written decision granting or denying medical parole. If a prisoner’s petition is denied, there is no internal DOC appeals process. The Act allows for judicial review through a petition for certiorari under G.L. c. 249, §4. G.L. c. 127, §119A(g).[2]

2019 Medical Parole Regulations

The Act tasks the secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (“EOPSS”) with promulgating rules for administering the medical parole process. G.L. c. 127, §119A(h). EOPSS promulgated regulations in July 2019 (the “2019 Regulations”).

EOPSS took a restrictive view of the scope of the right to medical parole. The 2019 Regulations required the petitioner to develop a medical parole plan and authorized the superintendent or sheriff to reject petitions as incomplete. Under the 2019 Regulations, a complete petition included: (1) an adequate medical parole plan; (2) a written diagnosis by a licensed physician; (3) a release allowing disclosure of the petition and all supporting documents to other criminal justice agencies, the appropriate district attorney, and registered victims or victims’ family members; and (4) a release allowing DOC and the parole board to assess the inmate’s medical parole plan. 501 CMR §§ 17.03(3), 17.03(5). Incomplete petitions required no further action by the superintendent or sheriff. These initial regulations, however, did not stay on the books for long.

The Supreme Judicial Court Weighs In

In early 2020, the SJC invalidated several of the 2019 Regulations as contrary to the plain language of the Act and the legislative intent.[3] Buckman v. Comm’r of Correction, 484 Mass. 14 (2020).

In January 2019, inmates Peter Cruz and Joseph Buckman each submitted a petition for medical parole which was rejected as incomplete by their respective superintendents. Both Cruz and Buckman challenged the decision, arguing that the superintendent must consider a petition regardless of his or her view of completeness or adequacy. When Cruz died in custody during the pendency of the appeal, the case continued with Buckman as the sole plaintiff.  

Buckman’s appeal raised three important questions: (1) whether a superintendent must consider a petition for medical parole regardless of the superintendent’s view of the completeness or adequacy of the petition; (2) which party bears the burden of preparing a  medical parole plan, obtaining a written diagnosis by a licensed physician, and preparing an assessment regarding the risk for violence the prisoner poses to society; and (3) whether the Commissioner must provide the prisoner with notice of the superintendent’s recommendation, a copy of the recommendation, and any supporting or related materials. Buckman, 484 Mass. at 15-16. 

In answering the first question, the court held that a superintendent or sheriff must consider a petition for medical parole regardless of the petition’s completeness. The court noted that the medical parole plan, the written diagnosis by a licensed physician, and medical record releases are documents separate from the petition. As such, those documents are not required to initiate the petition process and trigger the statutory deadlines imposed on the superintendent and the Commissioner. Id. at 25 n.23. The separate nature of these documents is evidenced by the requirement that the superintendent or sheriff – not the petitioner – is required to transmit the medical parole plan, diagnosis, and the risk assessment to the Commissioner with the petition. Id. at 24; G.L. c. 127, §119A (c)(1) and (d)(1). To trigger the Act’s deadlines, the petitioner need not do more than submit a “written” petition. Id. at 26. 

On the second question, the SJC ruled that the superintendent or sheriff bears the burden of creating a medical parole plan and obtaining a written diagnosis from a licensed physician. The court reasoned that the Legislature could not have intended to place the burden of expeditiously producing documents on a terminally ill or incapacitated prisoner because the Act only requires the submission of the written petition to trigger the 21-day countdown. Furthermore, because the Act placed the burden of creating the risk assessment on the superintendent, one could infer that the Legislature intended to place the concomitant burden on the superintendent to create the medical parole plan and obtain a diagnosis from a licensed physician. Id. at 25-29.

Finally, the court held that the prisoner must receive all supporting documents submitted by the superintendent except the superintendent’s recommendation to the Commissioner. While nothing in the Act prohibits restricting a petitioner’s right to a superintendent’s recommendation, the court found it fundamentally unfair to prohibit the petitioner from receiving documents that the district attorney could access upon request. In fact, the 2019 Regulations themselves anticipated that the petitioner would have access to the medical parole plan and medical diagnosis because the burden of producing these documents was placed (albeit erroneously) on the petitioner. Id. at 30-32.

Proposed 2020 Regulations

After Buckman, EOPSS began the process of amending its medical parole regulations. The proposed regulations, accessible here, blend new provisions with surviving sections of the 2019 Regulations. At a public hearing on September 16, 2020, lawmakers and advocates criticized the proposed regulations for ignoring the court’s guidance in Buckman, narrowing the population eligible for medical parole, and placing unnecessary roadblocks that delay and frustrate the purposes of the medical parole law. 

Some issues flagged by advocates include defining the term “prisoner” to exclude pretrial detainees and individuals who have been civilly committed, construing “permanent disability” to require a higher level of disability than the Act requires, and requiring, as part of the petition, two signed releases on specific DOC issued forms. Although the proposed regulations have not been formally adopted, cases relevant to the proposed regulations are currently before the SJC.

Recent Appellate Litigation

On October 5, 2020, the SJC heard argument in three cases related to the medical parole statute:  Racine v. Comm’r of Dep’t of Correction (“Racine”), SJC-12895; Harmon v. Comm’r of Dep’t of Correction (“Harmon”), SJC-12876; and Malloy et. al. v. Dep’t of Correction (“Malloy”), SJC-12961.[4] These cases may answer a number of issues related to the 2019 Regulations, the proposed regulations, and the practical difficulties litigating medical parole cases.

In Harmon and Racine, which were argued jointly, the parties addressed: (1) whether a prisoner’s death renders moot a certiorari action for review of denial of medical parole; (2) whether the EOPSS regulation giving a prisoner the right to reconsideration upon a material decline in health precludes a prisoner from submitting a new petition for medical parole; (3) whether the Act applies only to committed offenders or includes pre-trial detainees; and (4) whether a reviewing court has authority to grant medical parole. The court requested amicus briefing on the first three issues.   

On the first question, DOC took the position that death generally renders a case moot. Petitioners argued an inmate’s death (or release) should not moot a case when the issues in the plaintiff’s case are capable of repetition and will otherwise evade review. Petitioners emphasized that the lengthy process to litigate a certiorari action after denial of a medical parole petition will frequently result in plaintiffs dying before their day in court. 

On the second question, both the 2019 Regulations and the proposed regulations contain a provision stating that “[n]o subsequent petitions may be submitted following the Commissioner’s denial of medical parole, unless the prisoner experiences a significant and material decline in medical condition.” 501 CMR § 17.14. Petitioners’ counsel took the position that the Act requires the superintendent to review every petition and does not restrict an inmate’s right to file a subsequent petition. DOC argued the Act does not address subsequent medical parole petitions and that EOPSS has the authority to regulate the matter.

On the third question, petitioners argued that the regulations’ exclusion of pre-trial detainees impermissibly narrows the scope of the Act. DOC contends that extending medical parole to pretrial detainees violates the separation of powers.

Finally, in deciding these cases, the SJC also may address the question of whether, on certiorari review, a reviewing court has authority to order medical parole. On this issue, DOC argued judges are limited to remanding a case to the Commissioner for further consideration, while the petitioners argued, among other things, that the certiorari remedy necessarily includes the power to order the medical parole the Commissioner improperly denied.[5]

In Malloy, the court was asked to consider whether a prisoner may continue to be held in custody after the Commissioner has granted medical parole. In that case, two inmates were each granted medical parole without a medical parole plan in place and continued to be detained for weeks while DOC attempted to find a suitable placement. Both the 2019 Regulations and the proposed regulations give the Commissioner the authority to set conditions that must be met prior to the prisoner’s release, a process which may create delay. 501 CMR § 17.11.  

Petitioner’s counsel took the position that continuing to hold an inmate in custody after he has been granted medical parole is improper; that the superintendent or sheriff is required to create a comprehensive medical parole plan, including contingency options, within the 66-day window afforded by the Act; and where suitable placement has not been found prisoners should be released to a Department of Public Health facility rather than remaining incarcerated. In contrast, DOC argued the Act does not require immediate release and does not limit the period during which DOC may hold an inmate after medical parole has been granted. Regardless of the outcome, the Court’s decision in Malloy is likely to clarify the timing of an inmate’s right to release under the Act once the Commissioner has decided to grant medical parole. 

Conclusion

With inmates facing increased vulnerability during the COVID-19 pandemic, the medical parole statute is particularly important, yet release under the Act has been rare. At the time DOC filed its brief in Malloy, 337 inmates had submitted petitions for medical parole, of which 34 had been granted. Of the 34 inmates granted medical parole, 30 had been released from custody. Three inmates were still awaiting release and one had died after being granted medical parole, but before being released from custody.[6]   

Medical parole in Massachusetts is still in its infancy. Its scope, and the procedural mechanisms that govern review of medical parole petitions, will continue to be tested and refined over the coming year.

[1] The Act defines a medical parole plan as: “a comprehensive written medical and psychosocial care plan specific to a prisoner and including, but not limited to: (i) the proposed course of treatment; (ii) the proposed site for treatment and post-treatment care; (iii) documentation that medical providers qualified to provide the medical services identified in the medical parole plan are prepared to provide such services; and (iv) the financial program in place to cover the cost of the plan for the duration of the medical parole, which shall include eligibility for enrollment in commercial insurance, Medicare or Medicaid or access to other adequate financial resources for the duration of the medical parole.” G.L. c. 127 §119A(a). 

[2] Because affected prisoners are frequently infirm, subject to quick health changes, and usually nearing the end of life, expediting certiorari review is often important. See, e.g., G.L. c. 249, §4 (certiorari petitions must be filed within 60 days); Superior Court Standing Order 1-96(2) (administrative record must be filed within 90 days), Superior Court Standing Order 1-96(4) (certiorari action must be resolved through a motion for judgment on the pleadings served within 30 days of the filing of the administrative record).  

[3] As stated in Buckman, the Legislature enacted the medical parole statute to save money on expensive end of life medical care and for reasons of compassion. 484 Mass. at 21-22.

[4] Superior Court judges have also tackled issues related to the Act. See Adrey v. Dep’t of Correction, Suffolk Superior Civil No. 19-3786-H, 2020 WL 4347617 (Mass. Super. June 19, 2020); Mahdi v. Dep’t of Correction, Norfolk Superior Civil No. 19-1064, Memorandum and Order (Mar. 31, 2020).

[5] G.L. c. 127, §119A(g) states: “A decision by the court affirming or reversing the commissioner’s grant or denial of medical parole shall not affect a prisoner’s eligibility for any other form of release permitted by law.” (Emphasis added).

[6] Brief of Respondent-Appellee Department of Correction, Malloy et. al. v. Dep’t of Correction, SJC-12961. 

Jessica Conklin concentrates her practice in white collar criminal defense, government investigations, and school disciplinary hearings. Jessica works with students and their families who attend several local secondary schools, colleges and universities in connection with disciplinary proceedings and title IX investigations. Jessica is also a member of the board of editors for the Boston Bar Journal.



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