A psychologist joined the state Parole Board yesterday, a gubernatorial appointment that drew criticism from victims' rights advocates and cheers from others who say that law enforcement voices have dominated the panel.
Leticia Munoz is the first behavioral scientist appointed to the seven-member board since the Dukakis administration, said advocates who hope that she will bring new perspective to the panel when debating whether inmates are ready to return to society.
"They're predicting behavior," Patricia Garin, a defense lawyer who represents inmates at parole hearings, said of the board. "To be able to do that, you need to consider all kinds of things going on in the world not related to law enforcement. You need to look at their illnesses and their treatment and counseling and put it all together. That's all stuff you really need a behavioral scientist for."
Munoz, whose term begins in March, has been clinical director of the Brightside School Street Counseling Institute in Springfield since 2001, working mostly with poor, urban clients.
When Governor Deval Patrick appointed the 50-year-old Florence resident last month, he said she would "add an important perspective to the deliberations of the Parole Board."
The Governor's Council unanimously approved her nomination yesterday.
The board makes parole release and revocation decisions, with releases based on the inmate's risk of reoffending and compatibility with the community. Board members conducted 10,000 hearings last year, with nearly two-thirds of inmates winning parole. The large majority are inmates from county houses of correction.
Republican governors of the past 16 years preferred appointing former prosecutors and others with a law enforcement background.
Patrick, a Democrat, has made three appointments to the board. He reappointed chairwoman Maureen Walsh, a former prosecutor who originally was a Republican appointee from 1998. She was approved yesterday by the Governor's Council. Patrick also appointed former police officer Mark Conrad.
"Criminals get a lot of breaks in Massachusetts, and I see this adding to it," said Laurie Myers, president of Community Voices, a victims' rights group.
Myers, a former counselor of rape victims, said the Parole Board has been "pretty fair; that's why they're trying to change it."
"Patrick is trying to make it a kinder, gentler state for criminals," she said.
Munoz, who did not return a call yesterday, told councilors at her nomination hearing last week that she will be fair.
"I don't see myself as an advocate, that I'm here to advocate for paroling as many inmates as possible," she said, "but rather [to] add depth to the decisions made."
Public Safety Secretary Kevin Burke said yesterday that Munoz has worked with a wide variety of trauma victims.
"She's aware of patterns and conduct that perpetrators might show and whether they're aware of the victimization they caused," he said. "Her primary concern is public safety."
Representative Ruth Balser, chairwoman of the Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, said she hopes there are more appointees like Munoz. House lawmakers have approved her bill to require three behavioral scientists on the board. It has not been acted on by the Senate.
About 90 percent of inmates will be released, she said, and without parole, some offenders will go directly from prison to the street.
"Paroles give us an opportunity to supervise reentry," the Newton Democrat said. "You can counsel them about employment and housing."