In her new role as an Equal Justice Works fellow sponsored by The Vertex Foundation, Gulino is launching a first-of-its-kind clemency and family support project in Boston for lower-income people from two groups: Black, indigenous, and people of color (known as BIPOC); and queer and trans people of color (QTPOC).
There are two types of clemency. One is by pardon, which exempts a convicted person from any remaining punishment or future consequence. The other is by commutation, which reduces a person’s sentence partially or fully. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, who has yet to commute any prison sentences, is currently considering two prominent cases.
Gulino hopes to build awareness of clemency as a legal option for people in need of legal redress. She has strong opinions on how people who are seeking clemency may be helped.
“Clemency reform is an incremental, small-scale, work-within-the-system approach to addressing the violence that the state enacts upon people who are incarcerated,” Gulino says. “Clemency reform will not solve the overarching structural issues that lead to the disproportionate incarceration of BIPOC and QTPOC: Only police and prison abolition will do that.”
What drew you to the issue of clemency?
When I entered law school, I knew I wanted to work with queer and trans people, but was not sure exactly how I would do that.
I was drawn to clemency because it is an integral but underutilized part of the criminal justice system in Massachusetts that has the potential, if used frequently and on a large scale, to function as a tool for racial and LGBTQ+ justice.
Why are you focused on providing assistance in particular to BIPOC and QTPOC?
These populations are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate. Between 2000 and 2016, the rate at which Black people served prison time grew at a rate almost twice the rate of white people. Federal data indicates that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are three times as likely to be incarcerated compared to the rest of the population, and more than 40 percent of women in prison identify as lesbian or bisexual.
Clemency work matters to me because it is an area of law that emphasizes the detrimental impact of how we have historically constructed and continue to construct institutions that subjugate Black, queer, and trans people: BIPOC and QTPOC are pushed into the carceral system by the school to prison pipeline, negative experiences in the child welfare system, poverty, unemployment; by racist, queer- and transphobic police tactics and enforcement of criminal laws such as stop-and-frisk, policing of gender norms, aggressive enforcement of anti-prostitution statutes, and collaboration of police and immigration enforcement.
How does a person seek clemency? What is the process?
In Massachusetts, the clemency process consists of three steps that involve three entities, the Massachusetts Parole Board, the Governor, and the Executive Council (also called the Governor’s Council).
First, the Massachusetts Parole Board, which is part of the Advisory Board of Pardons, reviews individual clemency petitions that meet minimal statutory and administrative requirements.
At the second and third stages of the clemency process, the Governor and the Council have substantial discretionary power, and are the ultimate determiners of clemency grants and denials. If the Governor agrees with the [parole] board and decides to grant clemency, the clemency petition is subject to the consent of the Council.
Governor Baker appoints members of the Board, so Board members have high incentives to make decisions that Governor Baker agrees with because then he will choose to re-elect them as members. One way to mitigate the disproportionate power the governor has over clemency decisions is to have a model where the governor does not appoint members of the Board.
Why has clemency been diminishing as a legal strategy?
Clemency used to be a more prominent tool in Massachusetts. Since 1945, governors in Massachusetts have granted 5,772 pardons and 267 commutations.
More than two-thirds of the pardons and one-third of the commutations in Massachusetts occurred between 1964 and 1971, which demonstrates that governors used their clemency power much more frequently prior to 1971.
The national ‘war on drugs’ and ‘tough on crime’ political ideology—along with its racially discriminatory underpinnings—during the 1970s and 1980s played an integral role in shaping the decline of clemency grants in Massachusetts.
The message was simple: To protect white affluent communities from inner-city violence and crime, people who possessed crack-cocaine—predominantly BIPOC—should be incarcerated.
What are your career goals? Are you hoping to continue this kind of work in future?
As public interest attorneys—and in my case a future attorney—we are all participating in a hierarchical legal system where our job is to facilitate people’s access to life-affirming resources that, if we lived in a place that prioritized people over profit, they would have already had access to.
My main priority as a future attorney is to think about what type of world we as a society want to build, what responsibility I have to participate in its creation, and how I can do that in a way that feels grounded in community and an ethic of care.
I have an exorbitant amount to learn and am still in the process of figuring out what type of attorney I want to be in the long term. At this point, the only career goal I have is to always be open, inquisitive, and receptive to learning new things as the context in which I practice law transforms. I hope to grow and evolve with it.