Meet the Newest Member of the Massachusetts Parole Board: Tonomey Coleman

The Governor's Council approved Coleman in a 5-3 vote. Let’s hope he’s up to the tough road ahead.

tonomey colemanTonomey Coleman at the Governor’s Council hearing. (Photo by Jean Trounstine)

The newest member of the Massachusetts Parole Board is defense attorney Tonomey Coleman, who has signed on for the next four years to tackle his share of the Parole Board’s yearly workload: making parole decisions at 10,000 release hearings, overseeing the supervision of more than 8,000 parolees, and dealing with the nearly 700 state prisoners leaving custody with no post-release supervision.

Coleman, 49, was confirmed in a 5-3 vote today by the Governor’s Council to replace the retiring Roger Michel. Coleman’s term runs until August, 2017, and he—as well as the rest of the Board—has a lot of work to do.

A White Paper on the “Current State of Parole in Massachusetts,” released a few days before Coleman’s hearing, makes clear that it’s a public safety issue that the parole release rate in Massachusetts is so low. The report states that parole has dropped in state prisons “from 42 percent in 2010 to 26 percent in 2011. Similarly, from 2010 to 2011, county parole rates dropped from 40 percent to 28 percent.” Research shows that parole can’t serve its purpose as a supervised transition from incarceration to society if practices are this restrictive (see “For the Massachusetts Parole Board It’s Time for a Change”).

“I heard there was an interest in candidates with defense backgrounds and when I looked into it, I thought I would be a good fit,” Coleman said at the Governor’s Council hearing when asked why he applied.

The road to the Parole Board for Coleman, who grew up in Brooklyn, began well before he attended Boston College Law School. In our interview, he said that part of what prepared him to be an attorney is his “working class background” and being “street smart enough to know there’s always an untold story.” He spent his early years in Boston “taking cases to pay the bills,” and throughout the years, his practice has included personal injury, real estate, bankruptcy, and criminal defense cases in state and federal courts. He eventually went into solo practice in 2001, became a member of the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Boston Bar, and served as President of the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association.

At the hearing, he also told the Governor’s Council that through his 15 years as a lawyer, he gained a skill set that made the Parole Board a challenging prospect for him. After an initial training period of approximately two months, Coleman will travel across Massachusetts to hear cases in state and county correctional facilities. Each Tuesday, he will be one of the seven Board members who make decisions on the cases of the second-degree lifers eligible for parole. But Coleman can make few promises to the public about how he will react to the enormous and controversial decisions he will have to make—or how he will handle the pressure.

“I am not the type to go along to get along,” Coleman said during our interview. But he was grilled by some members of the Council for not being as prepared as they expected, and it was a surprise to some that, after finding out about the job opening in July, he had not made it his intention to attend a public lifer parole hearing. (”… it had never come up in my practice,” Coleman said.) However, he said that after last Wednesday’s hearing, while he felt he had a “good sense about the legislative aspects” of Parole, he realized he needed to read more articles about drug addiction as well as gain more knowledge about the problems of parole in the state.

There are some promises that Tonomey Coleman can make to Massachusetts. He believes that Parole is good for “public welfare.” Most of all, he promises to observe and assess before he “flexes his muscles.” For the good of the state, here’s hoping he will make a difference.