SJC to referee another medical parole dispute 

CommonWealth Magazine on Sept. 9 reported on an amicus brief filed by Prisoners’ Legal Services, the Disability Law Center, and the Committee for Public Counsel Services. Since the legislature established medical parole in 2018, prisoners’ rights advocates and Department of Correction officials have been in a near-constant fight about how the law is being implemented.

Tatum Pritchard, an attorney with the DLC, which filed a brief in the case, said the Legislature made clear that someone who is permanently incapacitated – physically or cognitively – should be eligible for parole, but the DOC inappropriately created a much narrower definition by focusing on activities of daily living. Pritchard said under the DOC’s definition, medical parole is reserved only for individuals who “really have no functional abilities at all.” 

The court could also address other related issues. DLC, PLS, and CPCS argued in their court brief that correction officials need to consider whether someone’s disability led to certain behavior in jail, like being disruptive, and whether that disability could be managed in the community. 

Read more in CommonWealth Magazine and in The Boston Globe.

SJC says Boston judge erred in denying marijuana expungement

A Sept. 8 Boston Globe article quoted Greater Boston Legal Services attorney Pauline Quirion, director of the CORI and Re-Entry Project at GBLS. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that a Boston judge “abused his discretion” when he denied a request by a former defendant to permanently erase legal records of two marijuana possession arrests in the early 2000s.

The unanimous opinion, written by Associate Justice Serge Georges Jr., found that people previously arrested for cannabis crimes that have since been legalized are entitled to “a strong presumption in favor of expungement.” It orders a lower court to grant the request and effectively removes the power of state judges to deny similar petitions, unless they can cite a “significant countervailing concern.”

“This is huge,” said Quirion, the lead attorney for GBLS, who represented the former defendant in the case. “It’s a fabulous decision that reflects basic common sense: It’s clearly unjust to have to carry a criminal record for something that’s no longer a crime.”

By easing the path for other former defendants to obtain expungements, Quirion added, the SJC’s ruling would “help deal with the harm to communities of color that was inflicted by the war on drugs and tough-on-crime policies.”

Read more in The Boston Globe and in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.

How a Massachusetts law meant to help victims is working against them

Massachusetts Law Reform Institute Deputy Director of Advocacy Jamie Sabino and Greater Boston Legal Services Senior Attorney Mithra Merryman were interviewed recently by WBUR regarding a law that was intended to protect the privacy and safety of victims of domestic and sexual violence, but has instead protected perpetrators and police. The Massachusetts law requires police to keep all reports and arrests related to sexual and domestic violence secret, something no other state does.

In fact, 16 police departments turned down WBUR’s request for records detailing their actions leading up to domestic murders, all citing the same statute.

It has also harmed victims by making it difficult ⁠— even impossible ⁠— to obtain records they need for custody battles and restraining orders.

Sabino, staff attorney at MLRI, said she was concerned about potential “unintended consequences” even as she helped advise lawmakers on the language in the 2014 bill.

Read more and listen to coverage at WBUR (Aug. 27 and Aug. 29).

Buried beach walkway raises accessibility questions

NBC Boston quoted Disability Law Center supervising attorney Tom Murphy in a recent article investigating accessibility concerns at Salisbury Reservation Beach.

On the walkway to the beach, the handrails are either barely visible or buried under several feet of sand.

Last year, Murphy reviewed utility poles that were placed right in the middle of new sidewalks in Dedham, explaining how they presented accessibility barriers for people in wheelchairs.

We asked Murphy about the beach ramp and he said the lack of maintenance appeared to violate the federal ADA law that requires equal access for everybody.

“They need to clear the ramp,” Murphy said. “Just like the roof on your house, these access features need to be looked at to make sure they’re still in operable, safe working condition and they’re usable.”

Read more at NBC Boston.

Massachusetts triple-deckers can be full of fire hazards. Here’s why.

Blair Komar Bates, a housing attorney at Community Legal Aid, was quoted in an Aug. 15 WGBH article about the hazards of old three-decker buildings in Massachusetts.

When Lorraine Adams sees a triple-decker in Worcester, she remembers the fires.

Adams was 15 when old electric wiring in a three-decker she and her family rented ignited a blaze that completely burned the building. Nobody was injured, but the family lost all of their belongings and had to immediately find somewhere new to live.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Massachusetts has a housing shortage of about 163,000 affordable rental homes. Komar Bates, a housing attorney with Community Legal Aid, said that means many lower-income people have little choice but to live in unsafe three-deckers. If a fire burns through the building, they’re vulnerable to homelessness if they can’t immediately find somewhere else to live.

“Landlords have disproportionate power right now to make tenants live in dangerous conditions,” Komar Bates said. “They can’t afford to move and they’re stuck in substandard housing.”

Read more at WGBH.

First-of-its-kind law improves college access for students with autism, intellectual disabilities

Julia Landau, director of the Disability Education Justice Initiative at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, was quoted in an Aug. 7 Boston Globe article.

Massachusetts students with autism and significant intellectual disabilities will gain unprecedented access to postsecondary education at state colleges and universities under a law signed late last month by Governor Charlie Baker, lauded by disability rights advocates as the first of its kind in the nation.

More than a decade in the making, the breakthrough legislation will require all of the state’s public college campuses to offer accommodations to young people whose severe disabilities prevent them from earning a standard high school diploma, allowing them to take classes as nondegree-seeking students and join extracurricular activities alongside their peers — experiences that can transform their lives for the better, according to experts.

“It’s truly a joyous and historic milestone, for the state and for the country, because it really will allow people with disabilities to reap the same benefits of higher education,” said Landau. “They have shown that they can exceed societal expectations when they’re given the same opportunities to learn.”

Read more in The Boston Globe.

Report: Restraints and involuntary medication widespread at corrections facility for people with mental illness

A new report by the Disability Law Center suggests staff physically restrained and involuntarily medicated over half of their patients at the Department of Correction’s Bridgewater State Hospital over six months.

The report focused on the facility that houses over 200 men suffering from mental illness, and alleged staff used force to inject sedatives into unwilling patients. The group recounted some of 15 incidents, documented by video, where staff in riot gear held down patients as they were injected with medications, often despite their protests and without an indication that there was an emergency.

“The pattern and practice of violent staff interventions would not be accepted in a DMH [Department of Mental Health]-licensed psychiatric hospital,” wrote authors from the center, which is charged by state courts with monitoring whether reforms are happening at Bridgewater.

Read more at GBH News. Additional coverage in WBUR and CommonWealth Magazine.

New report proposes a different way forward for incarcerated women in Massachusetts

On Monday, Prisoners’ Legal Services’ Women’s Incarceration Conditions and Reentry Project released a new report detailing the traumatic experiences of incarcerated women in Massachusetts and the urgent need to remedy the harm that women face in the carceral system. PLS attorney Sarah Nawab is the primary author of the report, A Different Way Forward: Stories from Incarcerated Women in Massachusetts and Recommendations.

The research is based on interviews with 22 women, either currently or formerly incarcerated in prisons and jails across the state. Of the women interviewed, the vast majority — 19 women — said they had either experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or sexual violence while in custody.

“I think sexual misconduct happens with some regularity, and we have been unable to represent women in a brutality lawsuit like we do for many other people,” said Lizz Matos, PLS executive director, who was quoted in a WBUR article about the report. “And so this report was a response to that problem of not being able to shine a light on an issue and to show, through personal accounts, that this is real and it happens. And it needs a state response.”

Read more at PLS, WBUR, and WGBH.

Jury orders construction company to pay $650,000 to immigrant worker in retaliation case

The Boston Globe reported on the verdict of a case involving an injured worker, represented by Greater Boston Legal Services attorney Audrey Richardson. A federal jury in Boston on Tuesday ruled that a construction company retaliated against the worker by reporting him to immigration officials in an effort to have him deported after he was seriously injured on the job and awarded the man $650,000 in damages.

José Martin Paz Flores had broken his leg after falling off a ladder at work in 2017 and was recovering from surgery when his boss at Tara Construction told him to come to the office because he had some money for him, according to testimony during the week-long trial. But minutes after Paz picked up an envelope containing $500, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested him for living in the country illegally, as his 2-year-old son looked on.

Audrey Richardson, the lawyer for GBLS who represents Paz, said the verdict “made crystal clear that employers who think that they can take advantage of a worker’s undocumented immigration status to undermine their ability to exercise their basic workplace rights, in this case reporting an injury and getting medical care, will face serious consequences.”

Read more in The Boston Globe.

Tragedies fuel child welfare bill, pitched as attempt to improve system

Child welfare advocates, including Massachusetts Law Reform Institute Staff Attorney Susan Elsen and Retired Juvenile Court Judge Jay Blitzman, interim director of the Massachusetts Advocates for Children, scrutinized portions of an omnibus reform bill that in part seeks to rework the advising structure for the state’s Office of the Child Advocate while granting the office more power to intervene in some court cases — proposed legislative language one former judge said creates legal questions. The bill is pinned to high profile cases of child neglect in Massachusetts.

Some child welfare advocacy groups pushed back on the idea, saying the Office of the Child Advocate needs to have access to a wide range of expertise. Elsen said the office cannot oversee the welfare and safety of children in the state all by itself.

“Even if we agree that the composition should be adjusted so it doesn’t have as many executive branch members so as to ensure that the OCA has independence from the executive branch, the OCA does need an advisory committee to consult with, report to, and be accountable to,” Elsen told lawmakers.

Blitzman said Massachusetts has a “history of reacting to tragic cases with sometimes ineffective policy changes.” Blitzman said he and the legislative committee share the same concerns about improving the child welfare system. But he raised questions in his testimony about “how the bill might or might not achieve its goals.” 

Read more in the June 7 articles at MassLive, CommonWealth, and The Eagle Tribune.