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Commutation

Commutation Kit 2021

Avis Lee says, “You got this!” Here she is on her 1st day of work
Avis is the 4th woman to receive commutation in Pennsylvania in 30 years.

Let’s Get Free! has updated our COMMUTATION support Kit

New Updates & Friendly Reminders as of March 2021

Download the 2021 Commutation Kit

These tips are written for people sentenced to life without parole but anyone filing for commutation can benefit from them. The process is open to anyone who has been convicted of anything.

  • Your filing Date & Patience. This process requires a lot of patience! After you send in your application it will be officially “filed.” This means the DOC submitted it to the Board of Pardons; once received and reviewed, you should receive correspondence from the Board that has your Filing Date. From that point, it can take up to two years from your filing date to get through the commutation process.  With the Board’s goal of getting the time line reduced to 1-year, this target has not yet been reached due to several factors: COVID; increased number of applications; and limited Prison and Board capacity.
  • Naomi Blount, a Commutation Specialist working for the Lt. Governor, advises: “Stick to the questions asked on the application form. Don’t go into what happened in the courts. Make your application clear, so readers do not have to guess as to what you may mean. Most importantly… TELL THE TRUTH!!!!”  Remember, excluding information or facts will be viewed as being untruthful.
  • Character Statements – letters from family and friends demonstrating support for your release and speaking on your character.  The Board will accept these letters of support when you send in your application or anytime after.  Find more information about writing letters on Pages 6-7
  • Reentry Support Letters. The reentry support letters are the most important; these are letters about home plans, jobs, financial support – any tangible support to facilitate your successful reentry.  It is strongly advised that these letters be sent once you get your official filing date, or later, because they can become outdated or no longer accurate.  
  • Home plans are important! It’s ok to have more than one home plan but having a home plan that is located in PA is essential.  When your sentence is commuted you must reside in Pennsylvania for one year [12 full months]—no wiggle room on this requirement; this is the law.  You are technically on Furlough for a year—this means your assignment to a Community Corrections Center [CCC] can be modified so that you will be permitted to spend extended periods of time at your home plan location. You will be able to do this once your home plan is approved. Remember a home plan is simply a promise of a place to stay; you will be able to modify the plan, if needed, once you are living in the CCC.
  • Interview with DOC Secretary John Wetzel: It has long been thought that Secretary Wetzel interviews each applicant as part of the prison review process; this is not always the case. We have learned not everyone will have a video interview with the Secretary.  However, if you get scheduled to meet with him, it is very common for him to postpone these scheduled interviews and as a result, delay your application process.   

Changes Are ‘Comin

  • Innocent Claims and Wrongfully Convicted – The Innocence Project is collaborating with the Board of Pardons to create an addendum that will be used specifically by those who have a claim of wrongful conviction will include questions specific to these issues . This additional form is being finalized; and should be available by the end of 2021. The commutation process is not designed to address or resolve actual innocence claims so unless you can prove it, keep guilt or innocence out of the application. Focus on compassion, mercy and your accomplishments/prison record. If the PA Innocence Project supports your innocence claims, they will write a letter on your behalf to include with your application. [PA Innocence Project – 1515 Market St, Suite 300 Philadelphia, PA 19102 Pittsburgh PA – 914 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15219]
  • Digital Application Coming Soon – The application process is hoped to become completely digital no later than February, 2022. When this happens, each applicant will have their own account – applicants and their support people can help file the application, make modifications and check on status of the application. There should an identified location in each prison where one will be able to use the technology.

Application Stage

  • As of January 2020 you need to use the newly revised application. People in prison can get a copy of the application by going through a counselor or at the Law Library.  People on the outside can also send an application by downloading it through the Board of Pardons website. As of 2019 there are on longer fees associated with this application. https://www.bop.pa.gov/application-process/  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! 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. Your counselor should also be able to give you an application
    • For questions about the application contact John Johnson, Pardons Case Specialist Pennsylvania Department of Corrections 1920 Technology Parkway, Mechanicsburg, PA 17050. Phone: 717-728-0386 johjohnson@pa.gov  You can also try Brandon Flood at bflood@pa.gov 717-409-3913
    • Application Status Update (717) 787-2596 (From BOP website) All phone calls are taken between 11:00 am and 4:30 pm (Eastern Time).
    • Supporters can now email letters of recommendation to the board of pardons. Contact Brandon Flood – Bflood@pa.gov He will distribute the letter to the board and put it in the applicants packet. It’s always important to send a paper copy to your person filing the application.
    • Please write to us if you want a completed sample application of Naomi Blount. This application is from 2016 so it is not exactly the same as the 2020 ones but close. We are trying to get a more updated sample.
    • Take a look at the DOC policy on commutation at your law library: 11.4.1
    • Mail your application to: Pardons Case Specialist/Parole Manager Bureau of Standards and Accreditation Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole 1920 Technology Parkway Mechanicsburg, PA 17050
    •  
    • It is very important to have someone proofread your application before submission.

Tips for writing a commutation application

Ellen Melchiondo, The Women’s Lifer Resume Project with help from etta, naomi, elaine

The new commutation application is free and there is no filing fee. The application is available on the BOP website and in the prison library. The application includes supplemental pages and you must use them. Do not write “see attachment” in spaces where information continues. There is a box at the end of each section where you indicate if you will be including supplemental information. Information that you want to provide such as resume or published work should just be sent along with the application.

If you are not in prison and assisting an applicant what I do is download the application pdf.  I save it to my desktop and a text box automatically appears. I also get rid of the text lines, and select white to make the background solid. This makes it easier to read.  

Here’s a rundown on each section for people with life sentences:

Section 1 Type of Clemency: Check “Commute Life Sentence to Life on Parole” and do your best to remember each time you previously applied. 

Section 2 Applicant Information: Just the facts. If using the DOC-Parole for representation click the box, the address is below. If using someone else, give that information. 

Section 3 Convictions for Which Clemency is Requested:  Less information is asked here: “place, role and caught.” Use a supplemental page if needed. Do not minimize role. Don’t add dialogue. Don’t make excuses. Minimize details, you’re not writing a memoir or screenplay. 

Section 4 Additional Criminal Information: Fill out Section 4 to the best of your ability because parole provides the rap sheet to the DOC commutation office. No one is expected to pay for their criminal history report.

Section 5 Optional Personal Statement: is totally optional. No more checking boxes to address reasons for applying. One page is usually enough.  In Section 5 write what life was like before the crime and tie that in to describe how your life changed and improved directly.  For people who didn’t actually kill someone but were at the scene acknowledge that decisions made or behaviors resulted in being a suspect and ultimately convicted and sentenced. Wanting family members know how sorry you are should be an apology letter sent to the apology bank or Office of Victim Advocate, not in a commutation application.

I think now, less is more in Section 5. An explanation about your life circumstances before and during serving time is good. Accomplishments in list form. Home plan if you have one.  You can list your supporters and how they will help you.  Be sincere, humble and realistic about your goals. 

Section 6: Sign and date. Keep a copy for yourself!

Tips for writing about your crime

One of the most challenging aspects for those who are pursuing commutation is to explain the role they played in the crime. Again,it is very important to have someone proofread your application before submission. When writing about the details of your crime, it is important to be both detailed and concise. Do not leave any information out, but also try to be straight to the point.  One challenge is knowing how much to share about what led up to the crime. For women in general, this cannot be omitted or separated. 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.

You no longer have to admit to things you didn’t do as was the thought under the old commutation process. Before, your story had to match that of the State. Now you can tell your truth but it is important to take responsibility for your role. If you are wrongfully convicted – you are still convicted in the eyes of the state. So it is basically a plea for mercy. Because this isn’t re-litigation it’s not a retrial – the most you might do is point out some evidence that they could see. This process isn’t set up for the wrongfully convicted – write Lt. Gov John Fetterman about this. 


Filing Date and Staffing Stage

After you submit your application is officially filed – this can take awhile from the time that you send it in. And 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. A person can also request a supportive staff person to be included too.

Current staff may not write letters of support.  They may submit an email to the respective Unit Manager to be included in the staffing packet.

 

Merit Review Stage

For updates on merit review contact Brandon Flood Bflood@pa.gov 717-480-0793 – Let it be known that there is most often incorrect information about who is going up for Merit Review – even if one of the BOP people tell us who is going up. Several times they have listed peoples names and several times they were not on the list.  Try to call the week before the scheduled merit review to obtain the most accurate info. You can also try John Johnson.

Before your merit review you will be interviewed by Wetzel: 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. Not everyone will have an interview with Wetzel.

To pass merit review you need a 3-2 majority. You can now appeal a negative outcome during the Merit Review phase.  You have 30 days to submit a Letter of Reconsideration along with a form you can find on DOC website, this letter of reconsideration is attached below. George Trudell, Naomi Blount and Farouq Wideman were denied at merit review stage, filed the reconsideration letter and are now released!

Hearing Phase

After a person passes the merit review, you will be scheduled for an in-person or virtual interview a few days before the hearings. This may be at Camphill or at Central Office in Mechanicsburg. The prison staff person who supports the applicant at the public hearing will be attending the in-person interview. Even during COVID these in person interviews happened.

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 and was Wetzel’s idea. The idea is that Staff here at Central Office will never know the people as well as the institutional staff. Applicants are not permitted to select the designated facility staff person.  This is the decision of the superintendent.  They are still free to appoint someone else to represent you such as an attorney, friend or family member however, Mr. Johnson would not recommend since the representatives don’t have to speak as much and prepare long presentations as was the case in the past. But the representative must know the case inside and out and now how to prep the supporters in presentation.

Encourage your supporters to reach out to us if they have questions or just want some moral support. If they want to know what to expect, they can find a video on youtube of the full day of public hearings in May by searching: PA Board of Pardons, May 30, 2019. There is a shorter video highlighting Naomi and Cynthia’s hearing of the same day. Search youtube: PA Board of Pardons Hearing for Cynthia Gonzalez and Naomi Blount. Perhaps your counselors can pull it up for you as it is public and pertains directly to your situation.


2021 Board of Pardons Schedule
Merit Review  & Public Hearing Sessions:

Thursday, May 6, 2021 – Merit Review Session – Skype Session 3:00 p.m.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021 – Public Hearing – Zoom Meeting

Thursday, June 24, 2021 – Public Hearing – Zoom Meeting

Friday, June 25, 2021 – Public Hearing – Zoom Meeting


Thursday, August 5, 2021 – Merit Review Session – Skype Session 3:00 p.m.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021 – Public Hearing – Zoom Meeting

Thursday, September 23, 2021 – Public Hearing – Zoom Meeting

Friday, September 24, 2021 – Public Hearing – Zoom Meeting


Thursday, October 28, 2021 Merit Review Session – Skype Session 3:00 p.m.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021 – Public Hearing – Zoom Meeting

Wednesday, December 1, 2021 – Public Hearing – Zoom Meeting
Thursday, December 2, 2021 – Public Hearing – Zoom Meeting


Friends and Family can get conference call numbers from merit review and zoom link for public hearings at: https://www.bop.pa.gov

Letters of Reentry Support and Letters of Recommendation are Important!

A Reentry Support  Letter shows real support coming home: housing, money, job, transportation, clothes, etc… The best time to file these letters is when your commutation application is officially filed. The concern there is that the tangible support will become outdated because the process takes so long so if you can send the letters when you get your filing date they should be good. So wait to hear from the DOC and the BOP that your application has been filed.

A letter of Recommendation explains why a person believes you are no longer a threat to public safety and have been rehabilitated. They can express other things like looking forward to spending time with you, showing you how to navigate the free world, etc.. You can file these letters any time!

Reminder: Supporters can now email letters to the board of pardons. Brandon Flood – Bflood@pa.gov He will distribute the letter to the board and place in the applicant’s packet.

Keep in mind if you are writing to organizations for support letters and they don’t know you personally it is hard for them to write you a letter. Try building a relationship first.

Asking Friends and Family for Letters

 Support your friends in supporting you!

Here is a sample letter people in prison can use to mobilize family and friends to write letters:

Dear

I am working on my commutation application. I would like to know if you would be interested in writing a letter of support, a character witness letter to the board of pardons on my behalf. If you are open to this the letter should be addressed to The Board of Pardons 333 Market St, Harrisburg, PA 17126 and include the following

RE: (commutation applicant’s name) Commutation of Life Sentence, letter writer’s return address and phone number.

The letter should state the following:

1. Briefly touch on who you are, your background, employment, degrees, etc.

2. Include Commutation Applicant’s Name, DOC Number and Prison

3. How we came in contact with each other.

4. Your thoughts on my maturity and rehabilitation.

5. Your thoughts on my remorse for the offense I am convicted of.

6. Your thoughts on my chances for successful reentry into society, employment and participation in society upon my release.

7. Any willingness you would have in assisting in my reentry to society i.e. references, referrals, etc. when I am released.

When you are finished with the letter please send the original back to me. Please also keep a copy for yourself. Your assistance is greatly appreciated.

Thank you,

XXyour nameX

Download the 2021 Commutation Kit

One reply on “Commutation Kit 2021”

Thank you for the info! It helps to know how to write a recommendation for someone when it is a new experience .

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