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Swift kicks butt

The governor’s smart moves on welfare, pollution, and human-service hiring policies mark a refreshing change from the status quo

GOVERNOR JANE SWIFT’S decision last week to ease the hiring restrictions blocking ex-convicts from working for state human-service agencies took guts. The move comes in the wake of her bold April decision to apply some of the nation’s tightest pollution controls for coal-burning plants to Massachusetts’s six grandfathered plants, and her equally surprising announcement to reform “welfare reform” by allowing recipients to count education credits toward weekly work quotas. She also has continued former governor Paul Cellucci’s strong stance in favor of the Clean Elections Law (Swift penned an op-ed for the June 18 Boston Globe that said, “The Massachusetts Legislature should respect [the voters’] will and ensure that the budget sent to my desk includes full funding for the Clean Elections Law.”

Just six months ago, the Phoenix, troubled by the ethical lapses that bedeviled Swift during her first two years as lieutenant governor, urged her to leave office. (See “Twin Peril,” News and Features, December 8, 2000, which can be found at That concern remains real, although her scrupulous return of all gifts worth more than $50 that were showered on her infant twins shows she may have learned from her mistakes. More important, her policy decisions since becoming governor show an unexpected and welcome independence from Cellucci’s agenda.

Swift’s latest move is the strongest signal yet. The odious human-service hiring restrictions were imposed in 1996, one day after the Boston Globe reported that the Department of Social Services was hiring foster parents with lengthy criminal records. Then-governor William Weld issued new guidelines that prohibited state human-service agencies from employing anyone convicted of murder, rape, or armed robbery. Those convicted of lesser offenses, such as assault, drug possession with the intent to distribute, or drunk driving, weren’t eligible for hire until 10 years after their convictions.

Felons, some with prior convictions for child abuse, should have been barred from the child-care business long before a news article brought the problem to the state’s attention. But Weld’s solution, issued in the heat of his closely fought but unsuccessful battle for John Kerry’s Senate seat, had damaging and unintended consequences. Homeless shelters, drug-rehab centers, and other agencies that do business with the state suddenly found that they couldn’t hire some of the most qualified candidates — former addicts with criminal records who’d been through recovery and managed to stay clean and sober. As the Phoenix has reported (see “Addicted to Punishment,” News and Features, July 1, 1999), during one six-month period, the Somerville Homeless Coalition rejected 10 applicants because of the stringent hiring restrictions. The agency would have preferred to hire nine of them.

“The population we serve benefits tremendously from working with folks who are counselors who are in recovery — who have, if you will, been there and done that and landed on the other side,” says Linda Wood-Boyle, executive director of HomeStart, Inc., which finds housing for homeless people. Wood-Boyle previously held the same position at the Somerville Homeless Coalition. “We’re about giving people a second chance and helping them get started again,” she says. “If we can’t hire folks who have, in fact, succeeded, it’s a bit hypocritical.”

Wood-Boyle, Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance executive director Philip Mangano, and many others have long lobbied the state to amend the hiring regulations. They got nowhere, either with Weld or with Cellucci. And no one expected to sway Swift. As Wood-Boyle puts it, she was “pleasantly — no, jubilantly” surprised by Swift’s announcement that she would support regulations allowing the state departments of public health and transitional assistance to waive the post-conviction waiting periods. The permanent ban on serious offenders such as murderers and rapists remains unchanged.

All this isn’t to say that the governor hasn’t stumbled since taking over the state’s top job. Her opposition to gay marriage — or even civil unions — is cowardly and intellectually bankrupt. And she has yet to deal with the politically expedient policy switch she made on the death penalty to run as lieutenant governor in 1998. Re-embracing her opposition to capital punishment, as well as scaling back her disturbingly harsh version of sentencing guidelines, would do a lot to show that she’s really moving in the right direction. She’d also be smart to meet with State Senator James Jajuga (D-Methuen), who plans to release a comprehensive drug-reform bill this fall that would shore up prevention and rehabilitation programs in the state.

More immediately, there is a vacancy on the Massachusetts Parole Board that should be filled with someone who has extensive experience in inmate rehabilitation. As Kristen Lombardi shows in this week’s story “The Politics of Parole” (see page 1), the board is currently stacked with rigid law-and-order types who use parole hearings to re-try prisoners for their original crimes rather than assess whether they are ready to re-enter society. In 1990, 70 percent of inmates who sought parole earned the privilege; in 1999, just 38 percent of parole requests were granted. Although the board is supposed to be staffed with members from law enforcement, psychology, criminal-defense work, and sociology, today the panel has three former prosecutors, a probation officer, a retired police detective, and a former state trooper. The vacancy should be filled with someone who realizes that helping inmates make the transition from prison life to freedom is best done under the supervision of parole.

State Representative Jarrett Barrios (D-Cambridge) wrote to Swift May 25 urging her to consider nominating the Reverend Paul Poyser, the prison chaplain who blew the whistle on allegations of prisoner abuse during a shakedown at MCI-Shirley last fall. And former board member Petra Cervoni, who served on the panel from 1993 to 1997 and worked as a social worker before taking a job as counsel for the Springfield Housing Authority, has submitted an application. Either candidate would satisfy the call for a new voice.

Will Swift do the right thing? The parole board doesn’t receive anything close to the media scrutiny directed toward coal-burning plants, welfare reform — or even the hiring guidelines for human-service agencies. This is Swift’s chance to show that her tack toward the center is for real.

Contact Swift and let her know that you want balance restored to the parole board. Call (617) 727-6250 or email

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Issue Date: June 21-28, 2001

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