Report back from Harrisburg Mobilization

The Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation Hits the Capitol

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Group with Jason Dawkins and Ed Gainey by Traisaun Leake

On Thursday, June 23, the Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation hit the Capitol pushing a 12 point platform that would change regulations and practices of the barely functional commutation process.  About 25 people traveled to Harrisburg from Pittsburgh and 10 more from Philly.  Upon arrival from Pittsburgh a devoted crew raced up to the office of Jason Dawkins, co-author of HB 2135, where he met them with open arms. House Bill 2135 was introduced on June 9, and has the ambition to Expand Parole Eligibility for Life Sentences. This bill would make people eligible for parole after 15 years served, and as Jason said in our press conference, “This bill would abolish life without parole.” Can you believe a State Rep said those words?!

Rep Ed Gainey from Pittsburgh gave a rousing speech at our rally in support of the bill. This is extra powerful because, tragically, his sister was murdered just a month ago. Additional surprise speakers included: Rep Joanna E. McClinton from Philadelphia and Delaware Counties, who was extremely encouraging and really applauded our efforts, and Rep Patty Kim of Dauphin County, who also stepped to the mic, talking about an impactful meeting she had with women at Muncy.

Some of our speakers included Mae Hadley and Donna Pfender, who spoke on behalf of their daughters who are serving life. Lauren Stuparitz spoke from the perspective of a victim – being the survivor of a brutal attack in Pittsburgh – she believes people deserve a second chance.

Reforms to the Commutation process we were pushing included: Rescinding the Unanimous Vote by the Board of Pardons in case of Life Sentences, Video interviews with lifer applicants before merit review hearing, and Written Reason for Denial of lifer commutation applications. And last but not least, HB 2135 Parole Eligibility for Lifers.

We scheduled meetings with legislators we thought could be potential allies, but were impressed with how many of them had visited prisons and met people serving Life. This included Republican Rep Tom Murt from Philadelphia, who deeply cares about veterans, and spoke of a friend of his who is a Vietnam war vet incarcerated since the 70’s. Tom wants to organize a public hearing in the Human services committee about LWOP, relating how LWOP affects the elderly, veterans, and its connections to mental health and addiction.

On the Senate side of things, Art Haywood, Shirley Kitchen and Greenleaf’s offices were encouraging, informative and uplifting.  Liana, the amazing legislative assistant of Mr. Haywood’s staff, said they were interested in aging prisoners, and the idea of having a public hearing was talked about in several meetings from several perspectives. Rep.Vanessa Brown, another ally, had just visited Muncy and saw a lot of elderly women who she thought should be at home with their families. One of our lobby groups randomly met up with Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York, who committed to co-sponsoring bill HB 2135 and gave group a tour of the House. What support!

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photo by Traisaun

Anne Gingrich Cornick, the legal advisor for the Board of Pardons, was present in the Governor’s meeting. Ann read our whole platform in front of us and said that most of our points on our platform would require constitutional amendments. Constitutional Amendments require a 2/3’s majority vote – they need to pass through the House and Senate twice before being put to referendum – a public vote. All regulatory changes for the Board of Pardons must go through the Independent Regulatory Review Commission. (IRCC)

We learned the Victim’s Advocate position of the Board of Pardons was filled by a Pittsburgh resident named Marsha Grayson. For those of you in Pittsburgh, it is her family that started the Jeron X. Grayson Community Center in the Hill district. Senator Greenleaf’s aid told us she is appropriate for the position not only because she has the victim’s perspective, having lost her son, but that also, coming from the Black community, she understands the impact of incarceration on families and neighborhoods and seems to embrace many perspectives.

One official advised that our biggest obstacle was the District Attorney’s Lobby. It was said they have great authority and do not stand with us.

And so, where does this leave us? There is a to do list a mile long including writing op eds, meeting with lawmakers locally, coordinating statewide efforts to push HB 2135 and commutation reform, following up about public hearings, and building alliances with victims rights organizations. Leaving the Capitol we felt very excited and hopeful.  We also felt the realness of the difficulty that lay before us. There is a long hard road ahead.

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