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On a mission:

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
On a mission:
Parole Board Chairman Mark Conrad balances public safety, taxpayers’ money and second chances (Photo: Sandra Larson)

Author: Sandy MiddlebrooksParole Board Chairman Mark Conrad balances public safety, taxpayers’ money and second chances

Author: Sandra LarsonParole Board Chairman Mark Conrad balances public safety, taxpayers’ money and second chances

The convicted murderer faced the parole board humbly. In Levi’s jeans, a pressed blue shirt and shackles, Stephen Emmons read from a statement hand-written on a sheet of yellow legal paper. His crime —beating his girlfriend to death in a drug-blurred rage 15 years ago — is on his mind every night as he goes to sleep, he said.

Massachusetts Parole Board Chairman Mark Conrad led the questioning. He addressed the inmate respectfully and listened intently as Emmons recounted the events of the killing. Yes, he struck her. Then she hit her head on the wall.

“The autopsy showed broken ribs,” noted Conrad.

“I tried to give her CPR,” Emmons said.

Conrad probed the inmate’s history of drug addiction, shoplifting, prior domestic violence incidents, incarcerations and parole violations, and then addressed the inmate’s time in prison and possible future outside of prison.

As five other board members took their turns, the questions grew sharp; the faces, skeptical. Conrad watched Emmons throughout.

“You treated her like an animal,” Conrad observed at the end, “and I don’t see any remorse from you.”

The board’s decision to grant or deny parole would come in six to eight weeks, Conrad told him. As he was led out, the prisoner threw a resigned glance at his mother, sister and daughter in the audience.

Every Tuesday, the full seven-member Parole Board hears up to three parole requests from “lifers” such as Emmons, second-degree murderers eligible for parole after serving 15 years. First-degree murderers are never eligible for parole.

The stakes are especially high for lifer cases, given the public safety risks, the emotions and sometimes protests of victims’ families, and the difficulty of re-entering society after many years in prison.

But most inmates are not serving life sentences. Ninety-seven percent come out eventually by parole or by serving out their full sentence. Conrad believes it is far better for all of them to come out under supervised parole than to leave prison with no services or monitoring at all.

Many hearings, multiple pressures
The Parole Board conducts 10,000 face-to-face parole hearings in a year. Every day, dozens of decisions are made to grant or deny parole — sometimes by just a single board member, in the case of county house of corrections inmates, or by a panel of three in state correctional institutions cases.

About 60 percent of parole requests are granted, according to the Parole Board. Not one is an easy decision.

The pressures on the board come from all directions. Prisoners’ rights advocates say not enough inmates are paroled, while victims’ rights groups and tough-on-crime advocates want to keep them locked up as long as possible.

And at a time of severe budget crisis in the state, all agencies are pressed to cut costs. Less incarceration and more parole saves money — but it only works if funds are available for the services and monitoring that help keep parolees on a crime-free, productive track.

On a mission
All of this falls on the chairman’s desk. Gov. Deval Patrick appointed Conrad, 48, to the board in 2007. Two years later, Conrad was chairman,  ultimately responsible for the activities of some 240 Parole Board employees across the state and the ongoing supervision of about 8,000 parolees.

As Conrad sees it, he’s on a mission, and he talked about it in a recent interview at the Parole Board’s central office in Natick.

“I consider parole work a ministry, a calling,” said Conrad, who is also an ordained deacon at Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan. “I don’t want to break people’s spirits, even when I deny them parole. I speak to them about the possibilities of what they can become.”

As chairman, he takes a multi-pronged approach to make parole effective. He studies other states’ correctional systems to learn and share best practices. He invites graduate programs at UMass Boston and Northeastern University to collect and analyze data on the Parole Board’s performance.

Before hearings, he pores over the inches-thick case files that help ensure informed decisions. He asks tough questions — the questions his neighbors and the people in the next pew at church want to know the answers to, he said. He casts his vote, and loses sleep over some cases.

And he keeps one eye focused on the next generation, lecturing regularly to college criminal justice classes and mentoring at-risk teens.

A Cambridge native, Conrad graduated from Rindge and Latin High School and went away to study business at the historically black Norfolk State University. After returning to the Boston area, he did a short stint in catering and conventions and then worked for Action for Boston Community Development, helping women make the transition from welfare to gainful employment.

After a few years, he followed his older brother’s footsteps into police work, influenced by the admiration on his father’s face at the brother’s badge-pinning ceremony, he said.

He spent two decades as a police officer, first with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s campus police, and then with the Town of Winthrop —where he was the first African American hired in the city’s history — and finally, for 16 years, with the Milton Police Department.

While on the Milton force, he earned a second bachelor’s degree from Curry College and a master’s degree from Boston University, both in criminal justice. In May, Boston University will award him the 2010 Distinguished Alumni Award for Service to Community.

He also took an interest in local youth, implementing a Drug Awareness Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) camp and a summer youth basketball mentoring program in Milton.

“I’ve always gravitated toward helping people,” he said. “I never approached police work as arresting people.”

Conrad’s spacious office is a photo gallery of people he admires — African Americans who paved the way for him, like Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama and some of Conrad’s own family members, as well as people who simply excel at what they do.

“Most kids of color — their heroes are basketball players, but Bobby Orr was amazing to me,” he said, pointing out the famous photo of the legendary Boston Bruin winning the 1970 Stanley Cup final. “I actually got that signed, so I’m really proud of it.”

 Behind his desk are family photos, reminders of those who have given him strength: his mother, who made him learn how to cook and sew before she died of cancer when he was 14; his father, who adapted to being a single dad and became Conrad’s “rock” during his high school years; his older siblings; his wife of eight years, Jacqui, and their blended family of three teenaged sons.

A small plaque near his desk reads “Faith: If you believe, all things are possible.”

Without faith, Conrad said, his job would be almost too heavy a burden to bear.

Worst-case scenario
Last December, a paroled murderer was charged with killing a Jamaica Plain convenience store clerk. The suspect was granted parole in 2006, before Conrad joined the board, but the case sheds a harsh light on the unknowable risks the board faces.

With so much risk, why parole anybody?

“It makes sense, economically,” said Conrad. He cited some figures. It costs $110 a day to incarcerate somebody — over $40,000 per year — and just $6 a day to parole him, for instance.

“We are in the risk-management business,” he said. “I have no crystal ball. That small percentage — what you see in the newspapers, the cases that go wrong — those are the cases that wear on my soul. That’s what makes this job so difficult. But we cannot afford — not myself as a taxpayer, you, your children — to keep everyone in jail.”

To Conrad, it’s not only about economics. It’s about giving people another chance. “This is the last bastion of community justice,” he said.

A second chance
Conrad said his days begin at 5 a.m. with a workout at the gym, and he fields a dozen or so phone calls and e-mails before reaching the office. The workday often extends into the evening with classes, meetings and events. And then the job follows him home.

When he walks his dog or goes to the grocery store, he said, neighbors stop him to comment on recent parole decisions.

In his large church, he sometimes encounters ex-inmates who remember that he conducted their parole hearing. “When it happens, it’s really overwhelming,” he said.

He has been thanked by people he paroled and by those he denied.

“ ‘I know you don’t remember me, but you denied me,’ one man told me,” Conrad recalled, “but then he said, ‘I really wasn’t ready at the time.’ Another, who spent 32 years in prison, shook my hand and had a suit on, and a tie. He thanked me for the opportunity to have another chance.”

Part of Conrad’s mission is to keep the next generation of young people from needing a second chance.

Preaching to the young
Last year, he started a mentoring and intervention program called “ABC” (Attitude-Behavior-Consequences) that brings city youths to hearings. Conrad leads the program with Ina Howard-Hogan, Parole Board general counsel.

At the hearing for the inmate who killed his girlfriend, a group of students from Rogers Middle School in Hyde Park sat silent in the benches, transfixed by the proceedings.

Afterward, Conrad spoke with them. Since the case was a domestic violence killing, and that day’s group happened to be all boys, he took the occasion to address the issue.

“If a girl bothers you … just walk away,” he advised, standing in his suit and tie and crisp white shirt before the gangly T-shirt-clad kids.

Conrad explained the white pin on his lapel. He told them about the recent  White Ribbon Day in Massachusetts, part of a worldwide campaign in which men pledge to help end violence against women and to recruit other men to do the same.

One of the boys raised his hand.

“Can I get one of those?” he asked.

Initially surprised, Conrad asked the boys if they wanted to take the pledge right then and there. They stood. They recited after Conrad, “I will not commit violence against women…”

He handed them pins, grabbed from a supply the Parole Board had on hand for its own upcoming White Ribbon event for employees.

Later, he talked about how that moment moved him.

 “As chairman, I make decisions crucial to the safety of many people, and those burdens weigh heavy on me,” he said. “But what’s really important is those young men in that room. That’s truly my sort of ministry. I really want to leave a legacy.”