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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rules on Medical Parole Despite Death of Prisoners Who Sought Judicial Review

by Matt Clarke

On May 19, 2021, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled on three questions relating to medical parole despite the two prisoners who filed for judicial review having since died.

Raymond Harmon and Brian Racine were Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) prisoners who applied for release under the medical parole statue, G.L.C. 127, § 119A. The Commissioner of Correction denied their petitions. Harmon filed for judicial review of the commissioner’s decision, but died while the case was pending in the trial court which then dismissed the case as moot. Racine asked the commissioner to reconsider the decision to deny based on his worsening health. He died four days after the commissioner refused to reconsider the denial.

Harmon’s attorney filed for direct judicial review in the Supreme Judicial Court about the same time as Racine’s filed a petition for certiorari in the county court which also ended up in the Supreme Judicial Court, where attorney Ruth Greenberg represented both of the deceased men.

The court agreed to address the following questions: (1) whether the death of a prisoner rendered judicial proceedings stemming from a denial of a petition for medical parole moot; (2) whether the regulations promulgated by the DOC to implement the medical parole statute allow a prisoner whose request had been denied to submit a subsequent petition; and (3) whether the medical parole statute applies only to DOC prisoners or includes pretrial detainees.

The court held that claims for a writ of certiorari related to the denial of medical parole become moot on the death of the prisoner. However, because the other issues are capable of repetition yet evading review, a court has the discretion to decide the case, as this court did in this instance.

The court examined the regulation restricting prisoners from filing a subsequent petition for medical parole, 501 Code Mass. Regs. § 17.14(4), and determined that it conflicted with the language of the medical parole statute,

G.L.C. 127, § 119A (c) (1), which states that the “superintendent of a correctional facility shall consider a prisoner for medical parole upon a written petition.” The regulation, by contrast, states that no subsequent petition may be submitted unless there is a serious and material decline in the prisoner’s medical condition and then the commissioner may simply reconsider the previous decision without a new petition being submitted.

The court held that, because the regulation is contrary to the broad language in the statute and the purpose of the statute, it is void.

When Racine filed his petition, he had several outstanding indictments. The commissioner noted this and, in denying the petition said, “Resolution of these pending criminal charges must occur before I can make a determination as to Mr. Racine’s eligibility and suitability for release on medical parole.” This placed the applicability of the medical parole stature to pretrial detainees before the court.

The court noted that the medical parole statute used the word “parole” to describe the type of release. Citing the Black’s Law Dictionary definition of “parole” as “conditional release of a prisoner from imprisonment before the full sentence has been served” and the placement of those released under the supervision of the parole board, the court held that parole can only apply to a prisoner who has been sentenced, not a pretrial detainee. Pretrial detainees with debilitating or terminal illness must seek release via bail. See: Harmon v. Comm’r of Corr., 487 Mass. 470, 168 N.E.3d 320 (2021). 

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Related legal case

Harmon v. Comm’r of Corr.