Restore Meaningful Commutation for Lifers in Pennsylvania

For Immediate Release:rmc copy

Contact – (Bret Grote – 412-654-9070)

The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee and Decarcerate PA are sponsoring a press conference on Thursday, August 28th at noon in the Capitol Rotunda. They will be joined by concerned state residents, lawyers and formerly incarcerated people in effort to Restore Meaningful Commutation for Lifers in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania is one of only six states in the country where people serving life sentences have no possibility of achieving parole. The use of life without parole (LWOP) sentencing in the state has increased steadily over the last several decades, jumping from less than 1,000 people serving LWOP in 1980 to over 5,000 in 2012. At the same time, the use of the commutation process, which is the only administrative procedure available for lifers to show remorse and suitability for reentry, has drastically decreased. Pennsylvania now has the largest proportion of its prison population serving LWOP sentences in the country (10%).

“It is time we shine a light on the success stories of those that have had a life sentence commuted. They have not simply avoided crime, they have made a difference in their communities as priests, neighborhood center directors, Soros Fellowship recipients, and mentors. The power of mercy has instilled a purpose in these individuals to make amends and to make a difference.”  says Dr. Brian O’Neill, professor of criminal justice, who will be speaking at the press conference.

When Avis Lee was 18 she was the look-out for a robbery, which ended in the unfortunate death of the victim. Avis had no intention of killing anyone, she didn’t pull the trigger, she didn’t even see it happen, in fact, she called an ambulance to try to save the victim’s life.  However, under the Felony Murder Rule she was convicted to life and is now serving her 34th year.  On August 28th, there will be a Merit Review Hearing in which the Board of Pardons announces the names of those seeking commutation whose public hearing has been granted, the next step in the commutation process. If Avis is denied at this time, she will not have the opportunity to come before the board for another 5 years.

“Avis Lee has been incarcerated for 34 years. Avis transcribes braille, donates her time to charity, lives on the Honor Block. Imagine what she could do if she were home,” said Suzanne South of the Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee (WTPDC).

Pennsylvania currently spends over $2 billion per year on prisons. The financial cost of housing the life sentenced population in Pennsylvania will exceed $7 billion over 30 years but these numbers don’t show the true cost of sentencing people to die in prison. These numbers don’t show the costs on families of incarcerated people as they trek across the state to visit their loved ones. They don’t show the effect of the leadership of lifers in prisons across the state or how much they could contribute if they came home.

Across the country, the recidivism rate for aging and elderly prisoners who have served long sentences, such as lifers, is very low. A great majority of these prisoners do not present a risk to public safety if they are allowed to return to their communities. Of the nearly 100 lifers in Pennsylvania who were released on parole between 1933 and 2005 aged 50 and above when they were released, only one was sent back to prison for a new crime.

“We need a total overhaul of the commutation process for lifers,” said Zoe Mizuho of WTPDC. “We are advocating for a repeal of the unanimous vote requirement for lifers by the Board of Pardons, and streamlining the lengthy and arduous process of applying for commutation.”

Sponsored by Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee, Decarcerate PA, New Voices Pittsburgh, WHAT’S UP?!, Fight for Lifers West

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