Opinions: Commutation and Update on Lifer’s Bill

Commutation Update with focus on women

This was written geared to people in prison in mid December by Ellen Melchiando with input from etta cetera.

There has been a lot of media and excitement surrounding the changes made to the commutation process over the past year by Lt. Governor John Fetterman. November saw a historic number (21) of public hearings of people with life sentences. For the last 30 years it felt promising if there were 6 life sentence cases up for merit review a year,  let alone more than 2 for public hearings total! Naomi Blount and George Trudell, both recently commuted from life sentences were hired by the Lt Governor as commutation specialists. Brandon Flood, a returning citizen, was hired as the Secretary of the Board of Pardons and according to friends and family members, he’s doing a great job! There is talk of changing the unanimous vote at the public hearing stage from 5 to 4 votes. People are coming home! 

Naomi Blount speaking in Pittsburgh on October 19, 2019

Despite the progress, which is unquestionably important and exciting, the outcomes of merit reviews and public hearings for women seeking commutation has been disappointing.

In 2018, the previous makeup of the board of pardons resulted in the votes for recommending Tina Brosius and she made it successfully with Governor Wolf’s signature. She was the first woman in PA to receive commutation in 30 years.

This year we have had 6 women make it to the public hearing stage. The current members of the BOP have commuted two: Naomi Blount and Magaleen Stewart. As you know both Henrietta Harris and Cynthia Gonzalez’s applications have been resting in the mysterious “reconsideration” pause pile.  Naomi was recommended in May and released in July. Magaleen and Naomi are now both in Philly at the same facility. They are allowed to sign out from 7am – 7pm and need permission to leave the city. They are very strict about people spending the night out though they made exceptions for this recent holiday – for Naomi.

A recent change in the process is that the DOC Office of Pardons Specialists will not be representing lifers at public hearings. This job falls to a staff person at the prison.  This doubly places the importance in having the institution’s recommendation. We witnessed these changes to the process at Magaleen Stewart and Terri Harper’s public hearing. SCI Muncy’s Deputy Frantz spoke to the board in support of Terri’s release.  SCI Muncy’s Superintendent Wendy Nicholas spoke in support of Magaleen Stewart.

What if a staff person supports the applicant but the institution as a whole doesn’t? Will they break from their superiors and support this person at a public hearing? This scenario is possible.  What if the culture within a prison doesn’t support a second chance for lifers and long-termers?

Each applicant gets “staffed” by their prison. This “staffing” is also called The Special Review Committee and is generally one or two deputy superintendents, a Major of Unit Management, or a Corrections Classification Program Manager or whoever is designated by the superintendent. The Facility Managers at Muncy and Cambridge Springs are Superintendents Wendy Nicholas and Lonnie Oliver respectively. A person can also request a supportive staff person to be included too.

A note about the video interviews with Wetzel before the Merit Review: Secretary Wetzel instituted the policy of interviewing applicants before the merit review. There is nothing in policy mandating the Secretary to conduct video interviews with people in prison.  This is his policy and this could be discontinued by the next secretary one day. The secretary makes the ultimate decision by the Department of Corrections to recommend or not recommend an applicant for commutation. Your application will not get to the merit review until this interview happens.

After a person passes the merit review, they are moved to SCI Camp Hill for an in-person interview a few days before the hearings. One last noted change is that the prison staff person who supports the applicant at the public hearing will be attending the in-person interview at Camp Hill.

Take a look at the DOC policy on commutation at your law library: 11.4.1

At the September hearings, there was a surprise break from protocol, the Lieutenant Governor spotted Naomi Blount in the audience and asked her to speak on behalf of Magaleen! She did this by walking up to the members on the dais and spoke lovingly of Maggie. Then at the end of the hearing, the Attorney General rushed down from the dais to give Naomi a hug along with wishes for her continued success!  This was indeed surprising and proves that things can change. It also demonstrates how much power people have- it turns out you can just call someone you see in the audience to testify!

One of the most challenging aspects for women lifers (and men, too) who are pursuing commutation is to explain the role they played in the crime. It is very important to have someone proofread your application before submission. The other challenges are knowing how much to share about what led up to the crime. For women in general, this cannot be omitted or separated. That’s my opinion. Since the Board of Pardons doesn’t tell us what swayed them to vote for or against an applicant, a 360 degree perspective is owed to the process. It really is up to women lifers to educate the board of the unique crimes that they find themselves convicted of. It’s a balancing act. You want to provide context for your situation without excusing or diminishing your role.

Currently we are tracking outcomes of staffing, merit reviews and public hearings based on the generalization of the type of criminal convictions of women: battered women, arson, infanticide, trafficking, mental illness, law enforcement, 2nd degrees, DNA conflicts, the family, as well as time served, institutional support or lack of, and “escapes.”

The application was recently revamped again. All applications in 2020 must use this new one. There aren’t any major changes for lifers, so no new information is required but you are required to submit the latest version of the application. Nothing to sweat here! Get the application at the law library.

You can request an application by writing to Board of Pardons 333 Market Street. 15th Floor.

Harrisburg, PA 17126. It takes 3 weeks. Include your name and DOC number or check the law library. Don’t forget this: if you have a negative outcome at the merit review, submit the official Reconsideration form within 30 days.

To make sure your application gets reviewed by the current Board of Pardons who will be presiding until 2022, we are ESTIMATING that you try to get your applications in by July of 2020 at the latest. This is us guessing. You should technically be able to be heard if you submit up until December 2020 but you know how things go. Everything is always getting pushed back. There is a rumor that they are creating 6 – 9 new dates for public hearings, currently there are 4 dates a year. This would help with the increased number of applications and give you a better chance to go before this board.

What kind of support do your family and close friends need to prepare for the public hearing? Let us know. Encourage them to reach out to us if they have questions or just want some moral support. We want to be there for you. This is a link to the full day of public hearings in May  This at least lets you know what to expect. Below is a shorter video highlighting Naomi Blount’s hearing of the same day.

The 2020 dates for merit reviews and public hearings have yet to be posted.

Update: During the December 20th hearings of those sentenced with LWOP – 2 were recommended for commutation, 3 were held under advisement, 12 were not recommended, 1 was continued under advisement and 1 case was not heard and continued. Of the two recommended – Oliver Macklin, 63 years old, served 33 years of a 2nd degree charge. Fred Butler, 72 years old, served 49 years on a 1st degree charge. The longest sentence 49 years and shortest sentence 23 years.  We were very disappointed that many deserving applicants were denied including both Sheena King and Henrietta Harris.

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A Bill’s Path to Law, An Update on the PA Lifers Bill by Jane Hein

Two bills exist that deal with parole for Lifers: HB135 and SB942. The bills are exactly the same but HB135 is a house bill and SB942 is a senate bill. Advocates are choosing to focus on the senate bill, SB942, because the senate is smaller than the house (50 Senators vs 435 Representatives) and it will be an easier task to convince less elected officials at first.

Shandre Delany, Saundra Cole, etta cetera, Ngani Ndimbie, Donna Hill at CADBI rally

To become law, a bill must be voted on and passed by a committee. In the case of SB942, that would be the Senate Judiciary Committee. Fourteen senators serve on this committee, (vs 25 representatives on the House Judiciary) nine republicans and five democrats. It is up to the chair of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Lisa Baker, to decide to hold a vote on any bill before her committee. But a vote should not be called for until enough members of the committee favor the bill. When a vote is held and the bill is passed by the committee, the bill would then go before the whole senate for a vote and if passed by the senate, the bill would go to the house for a vote. Only after passing the committee, senate and house does the bill go to the Governor for signature and only then does it become law.

The legislative branches, Senate and House of Representatives, have two year terms. This means that with each election, every two years, bills have to be re-submitted to wherever the bill is in the process (committee, senate, or house) in order to continue on the path to becoming law. SB942 was quietly re-submitted to the senate judiciary committee on November 12, 2019. It has until January of 2021 to make headway before it will need to be re-submitted again.

The bill essentially changes the parole board statues to allow the parole board to consider parole for life sentences. By PA statue, a sentence cannot be changed, but the PA statues do not say that life sentences cannot be paroled. So if a life sentenced is paroled, the parolee would have to be on parole for life.

Changes were made to SB942 when it was re-submitted last month. In a nut shell, Lifers convicted of first degree murder could be paroled after 35 years. Lifers convicted of second degree murder could be paroled after 25 years. Lifers convicted of killing a cop in the first degree would not be eligible for parole.

So here’s the deal. Advocates will continue to fight for the passage of this bill while continuing to advocate for earlier parole eligibility, say 15 years as the bill was previously submitted. The path to becoming law is a long one and there will be plenty of opportunities to advocate for changing the bill. The path to law is long and hard but do not be discouraged. Five years ago we had no bill! Change is happening because we are putting pressure on politicians, supporting pro-reform candidates in elections, and rallying in Harrisburg! WE WILL NOT STOP!

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Report Back from Rally to End Death by Incarceration and Heal Our Communities – October 23, 2019 by etta cetera 

This now-annual fall gathering in support of legislation changing the laws for lifers has the feeling of reunion for many. Recently released connect with old friends from the inside and people across the state who don’t see each other on the day to day get to hug, commiserate and rejuvenate. This year we brought back singing. After the usual impassioned and insightful speeches by lawmakers, returning citizens, family members, etc. at the podium, surrounded by hundreds of supporters with colorful signs, we lifted our voices harmonizing for redemption throughout the halls. The capitol building’s grand structure creates acoustics that bounce off the high ceilings and reverberate through our bodies. It’s quite moving. This coming together of like-hearted souls singing into the suit-wearing faces at the capitol. We wound back to the steps where an altar had been set up for anyone who had lost someone to violence to place a flower. This rally is a great place for someone who is looking to start participating in our movement to come. You feel the power of the collective. You feel less alone. In addition to all the good it does for the legislation, rallies like this keep us, on the outside, fighting another day. Accolades to the Philly coalition for all their stalwart efforts in pulling this off every year.

October 23, 2019 Photo by NateArt

 

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