For Immediate Release: Contact: Devon Cohen 412-999-9086
Harrisburg, PA – June 23, 2016 – Members of the Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation are sponsoring a press conference on June 23, 2016 at 12:15 pm in the Harrisburg Capitol Rotunda. They will be joined by concerned state residents, formerly incarcerated people, and family members of Lifers to speak to legislators about the campaign.
The Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation (CRMC) came together to advocate for changes that address Pennsylvania’s astonishing number of people serving Life Without Parole sentences. Pennsylvania is one of only 6 states 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.
Commutation is the only option for Lifers who are no longer a threat to public safety to have a second chance. Over 5,400 people are serving Life Without Parole sentences in Pennsylvania. Only 7 men serving LWOP sentences have successfully achieved commutation in the last 25 years, with the result that Pennsylvania’s prisons are increasingly filled with aging lifers with no parole options. Statistics show that as prisoners age, their risk of re-offending drops precipitously, while the costs of their ongoing incarceration steadily increase.
Women are consistently overlooked when it comes to their commutation applications. When Avis Lee was 18 she was the look out in a robbery that ended in death. Avis is now 55 years old and has spent 35 years in prison. Avis has changed; she is an upstanding member of her community and has institutional support from her prison. She has been denied commutation 5 times. If Avis is imprisoned for 30 more years, until the age of 85, she will cost the state of Pennsylvania approximately two million dollars. $66,000 is the average annual cost of a geriatric person incarcerated. Over 50 is considered geriatric in prison.
“As the monetary and social costs of mass incarceration continue to destabilize our communities, it is time for Pennsylvania to start being a leader in criminal justice reforms. Extreme sentencing practices are not keeping our communities safer and have extraordinary costs, while commutation, the system that exists to determine if ongoing incarceration can be justified, has become broken and dysfunctional. A functional and fair commutation system could have deeply significant impacts on many people in our state,” says Cat Besterman of CRMC.
To that end, the CRMC publicly launched its campaign in April 2016. About the campaign, Devon Cohen of CRMC says, “The Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation is advocating for reforms in the commutation system that could enable it to justly, effectively, and efficiently create parole possibilities for Lifers who are not a threat to public safety. We are not advocating that all Lifers be released in our current system, but that everyone have a fair chance to prove that they have changed and can contribute positively to society.” On June 23rd, they will bring the issue of commutation reform to the Capitol’s doorstep, and meet with legislators to discuss commutation reform after an informational press release in the Capitol rotunda at 12:15 pm.
In Pennsylvania, one in 10 inmates is sentenced to life in prison. Because state law gives them no possibility of parole, nearly all of more than 5,300 inmates serving life terms will eventually die inside prison walls.
“They have no choice but to age and die in place,” said Julia Hall, a criminal justice professor and gerontologist at Drexel University.
In the Laurel Highlands prison, seven rooms are the final stop for some of the state’s sickest and oldest inmates. With breathing tubes and IVs, the mostly gray-haired inmates wait for their bodies to fail.
When their vital signs slip and they struggle for breath, other inmates hold vigil so they won’t die alone.
Sometimes death is sudden. Other times, volunteers like Christian, a 32-year-old inmate from Philadelphia, watch as life slowly slips away.
“They get to the point that they can’t talk no more,” he said. “That last breath of air they’re taking — and you’re really there holding their hands.”
Christian, along with four other inmate volunteers, was describing his work at the hospice unit at State Correctional Institution – Laurel Highlands, a former state mental hospital that was converted in 1996 to a prison hospital for male inmates.
The facility has had a full-time hospice service for two years with room for seven inmates at a time. Previously, the hospital had a less formal system where the nursing staff tried to make inmates comfortable as they neared death.
PublicSource was granted access in August under an agreement that the last names of inmates would not be used.
Life means life
Only Florida has more inmates serving life without parole than Pennsylvania, according to a nationwide ranking of 2012 numbers by the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C.
State law mandates life in prison for defendants convicted of first and second-degree murder.
Accomplices to murder are treated the same as a killer, even if they themselves did not cause the death. First-degree murderers can also be sentenced to death.
Repeat violent offenders can also be sentenced to life under Pennsylvania’s three-strikes law, and other inmates serve de-facto life sentences with minimums so lengthy that they will almost certainly die before release.
From 2009 through 2013, 144 lifers died in Pennsylvania, according to state statistics. Over the same period, only four inmates had life sentences commuted by the governor after unanimous recommendation by the Board of Pardons.
Since 2010, just six inmates have been granted compassionate release, which is available to inmates nearing death who meet strict criteria, according to the Department of Corrections.
‘Nobody dies alone’
At SCI – Laurel Highlands, volunteers like Christian visit patients several hours each week, playing games, helping them write letters and sometimes just keeping them company.
“Those guys need help. They don’t have no family coming to visit,” said Elvis, an inmate volunteer from Venango County.
In the seven rooms for dedicated hospice care referred to as cubes, the focus is on reducing pain, providing comfort and helping them reach out to family members.
The program is based in part on a hospice unit in California where Laurel Highlands’ former superintendent sent Annette Kowalewski, a corrections healthcare administrator, and Paula Sroka, a quality improvement nurse.
In August, the hospice rooms were full until a 68-year-old inmate died after declining treatment for liver disease and lung cancer.
Medical staff are responsible for all the patients’ health care, while inmates provide companionship and physical help such as lifting patients out of bed.
Terminal illness strikes young inmates too, and a life term is not a prerequisite to dying in prison.
Special arrangements are made so family members can visit — sometimes for hours at a time — and the prison ensures that they’ll have access when the patient is dying.
If family doesn’t come, the inmates are there.
“Nobody dies alone,” Kowalewski said. “That’s our primary concern.”
Care across the state?
Christopher Oppman, director of the Bureau of Health Care Services for the Department of Corrections, said the state has adequate resources to ensure prisoners can get hospice care in infirmaries across the prison system.
But dedicated rooms for hospice care are less common outside of Laurel Highlands, so inmates at many facilities die in open wards.
“We would not be able to operate hospice on the scale that Laurel Highlands would,” Oppman said.
Staff at some facilities lack expertise in pain and symptom management, said Phyllis Taylor, a nurse and hospice expert who has previously worked as a consultant for the department.
In other words, not every prison gives the same quality of care.
“Some of the places maybe,” she said, “but not across the board.”
Taylor assisted researchers from Penn State University in a pilot program with the department to improve end-of-life care at six prisons that have high populations of aging inmates or lifers.
Staff at those prisons received specialized training to improve and standardize end-of-life care.
Currently, the corrections department is establishing best practices for prison hospice care statewide, Oppman said.
Paying until death
In Pennsylvania, inmates are classified as geriatric at 55. Common health problems are diabetes, cancer, liver disease and heart problems. Kowalewski said that an inmate who is 40 might look several decades older.
Of the roughly 5,300 geriatric inmates in Pennsylvania prisons, about 1,500 are serving life terms.
Because parole is not possible for lifers, Hall argues that the state is committed to a geriatric prison system.
“You’re going to keep paying until they die,” she said.
The state spent more than $35,000 for each inmate in the 2012-’13 fiscal year. The state does not keep numbers on the specific cost for inmates over 55, but costs increase as more medical care is needed.
The prison system is among the most expensive institutions in Pennsylvania, costing the state more than $2 billion this fiscal year.
At the end of September, 19 of the state’s 26 correctional institutions were at or above capacity, according to the most recent population numbers available.
Laurel Highlands, which was at 99.4 percent of capacity, costs $75 million to operate for the year.
Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, compared parts of the facility to a nursing home.
“When you see someone who’s on oxygen or in very poor health, we’re spending a lot of money to have that person in a prison,” Bergstrom said.
The state acknowledges that the risk of reoffending drops off with age.
The department’s 2013 recidivism report said released inmates under 21 are more than twice as likely to reoffend within three years as inmates over 50. Age has a “strong negative correlation” on recidivism, the report said.
Few ways out
Rather than paying costs indefinitely, Hall advocates for more compassionate release, criticizing a system with requirements so strict that it’s almost never used.
Politicians, she said, consider compassionate release “going easy” on offenders guilty of heinous crimes.
“It’s such a joke,” Hall said.
The state’s compassionate release rules were updated as part of a broader prison reform in 2008.
Under the law, a sentencing judge has the power to release inmates only if they are near death, have a nursing or hospice facility that will take them and have shown that their needs aren’t met in prison.
Rarely do inmates qualify.
Taylor, who has assisted prisoners seeking compassionate release, said an inmate needs to be immobile and essentially “on death’s doorstep” before a discharge is considered.
Victims and prosecutors get to weigh in, and the risk to public safety is considered.
“If they’re lifers, it doesn’t happen,” Taylor said. “That’s been my experience.”
For others, paperwork may take so long that an inmate dies before a decision is made.
Taylor said the state needs a method to evaluate whether inmates should be released if they are many years into a life term and have demonstrated that they’re not a threat.
Movement to change sentencing laws for lifers has been slow, Bergstrom said, though interest in Harrisburg is greater now than 10 years ago.
But lawmakers knew about the issue then.
In 2002, a Senate resolution directed the Joint State Government Commission to form a bipartisan task force and advisory committee to study the state’s handling of geriatric and seriously-ill prisoners. The group delivered a report in 2005 about the high-cost of an aging prison population and offered potential fixes, including the possibility of parole for lifers.
Hall, who was a member of the committee, said lawmakers ignored their suggestions and made compassionate release more difficult, not less.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole are unconstitutional for juveniles. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that ruling does not apply to inmates already serving time, and the federal Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.
However, Bergstrom said the Supreme Court ruling might give inmates already sentenced to life as juveniles traction with the state Board of Pardons.
Decades ago, commutations were common, meaning inmates serving life without parole would be given a lesser sentence by the governor. In the 1970s, for instance, Gov. Milton Shapp commuted 251 life sentences.
But commutations have become rare since, and under a 1997 amendment to the state constitution, the state’s Board of Pardons must unanimously recommend commutation before the governor can act.
Since the rule change, Gov. Mark Schweiker commuted one sentence and Gov. Ed Rendell commuted five.
Gov. Tom Corbett has commuted none.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
‘Don’t want him to go’
With few ways out, sick inmates live their last days in facilities like Laurel Highlands.
The prison looks like a hospital, but with razor wire out front and vertical bars in the hallways. Patients sit in wheelchairs, breathing bottled oxygen and numbly stare into the distance.
Watching prisoners die has given the inmate volunteers perspective on their own lives and made them think about what it would mean to live the rest of their days — and die — in prison.
“I don’t think that people on the outside really understand what it’s like for a person to die in prison,” said Travis, a volunteer who was at Laurel Highlands and is now out on parole.
Among the men in hospice care at Laurel Highlands is a 96-year-old inmate named Simon — the oldest inmate in the Pennsylvania prison system.
He’s built relationships with the volunteers, and they’ve watched his health slip as he moved into hospice care.
“I don’t want him to go,” Elvis said. “He’s like a grandpa to me.”
“When I got out nine years ago, it was like being thrown from the top of the stairs to the bottom—I had nothing,” Gloria Rubero wrote in a recent policy paper, part of a new report on reducing elder incarceration in New York state.
(Rubero pictured on right. The Justice Initiative at Columbia University / YouTube)
Gloria Rubero served 26 years in New York prisons. Between being incarcerated at the age of 30 and her release at age 56, she was denied parole five times, suffered two major strokes, and earned her GED and a college degree.
Rubero’s account of life after prison following her release in 2006 chronicles her struggles to find work, receive Medicaid, get an apartment, and adjust to a new and fast-paced world—struggles that countless returning citizens, and particularly older people, confront on a daily basis.
Published by Columbia University’s Center for Justice, the report is a collection of policy papers produced in the aftermath of a Spring 2014 symposium organized by RAPP (Release Aging People in Prison), the Correctional Association of New York, Be the Evidence Project, and others, aimed at addressing the fast-growing population of aging people in prison.
Experts in the field, including numerous formerly incarcerated people, argue that the rapid growth in the number of elderly prisoners demonstrates the punitive nature of the U.S. justice system, and further contend that the huge costs associated with locking up aging citizens—defined in the report as anyone over the age of 50—is incommensurate with the risk they pose to society.
According to the report, just 6.4 percent of people incarcerated in New York state prisons who were released after the age of 50 returned for new convictions, a number that fell to 4 percent for those who were 65 or older.
The authors say that expediting their release is a “critical part of reducing mass incarceration, and of creating a more fair, just and humane justice system.”
The state’s aging prison population shot up by 81 percent, from 5,111 in 2000 to 9,269 in 2013, according to the State of New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. The paper suggests this has largely been the result of so-called tough on crime legislation, such as mandatory life sentences without parole associated with the “three strikes, you’re out” law, and rigid release policies.
Prisoners older than 50 now comprise 17 percent of the state’s total prison population, the vast majority of whom are Black men and women.
Numerous studies have documented the financial, medical, and societal costs of locking people up for decades and allowing them to grow old behind bars.
The United States spends an estimated $16 billion a year to imprison the elderly. Since older prisoners typically have greater health needs, and because the very fact of incarceration often leads to premature aging, the price tag for incarcerating a person over the age of 50 is at least twice and sometimes five times as much as the cost of imprisoning a younger person, the report found.
Quite aside from the exorbitant expense associated with housing the elderly in state and federal correctional facilities (one report by the ACLU put the annual cost of housing a single elderly prisoner at $68,270), the report offers a close analysis of the personal and social consequences of “greying” behind bars.
These include inadequate medical and geriatric care on the inside, housing and employment discrimination on the outside, a parole process that has been defined as “dehumanizing,” and a lack of reentry services tailored to the specific needs of older people.
While the report offers numerous recommendations for New York state—including Rubero’s suggestion that formerly incarcerated people be empowered to guide the reentry of returning citizens—it contributes a larger analysis of the entire penal system in the United States.
In the words of RAPP Director Mujahid Farid, one of the lead authors of the paper who began a 15-year sentence in 1978 at the age of 28, but ended up serving 33 years in prison, the report “allows us to challenge a fundamental pillar of mass incarceration: the reliance on a system of permanent punishment, a culture of retribution and revenge rather than rehabilitation and healing.”
The ACLU estimates that state and federal prisoners over the age of 55 quadrupled between 1995 and 2010 from 32,600 to 124,900. If growth rates continue, that number could hit 400,000 by 2030.
“Women have always been the change agents of our society,” said Vivian Nixon, executive director of College and Community Fellowship, an organization committed to educational advancement for women with criminal record histories and their families.
Nixon was keynoting the landmark conference, FreeHer, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, August 4 and 5, where more than 43 formerly incarcerated women and their allies convened to rally an audience of 300 at Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. Leaders from across the country highlighted why this is the time for the United States to fund and support strategies to decrease the number of women behind bars and to end the mass criminalization of Black and poor women.
Women’s incarceration has not been fully addressed, however. Women are the fastest growing segment of the prison system.”
Nixon had barely landed from a whirlwind week, the culmination of her years of fighting to return federal Pell Grants to prisoners. Her activism had landed her a seat at the table with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch. She was at the Maryland Correctional Institute-Jessup on July 31 as the Obama administration unveiled a pilot program that will allow a group of prisoners to use federal Pell Grants to fund their education behind bars. Nixon also urged the FreeHer audience to fight for the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, far-reaching legislation sponsored by Maryland congresswoman Donna Edwards and others that would reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for federal and state prisoners. She said her path from incarceration to national leader taught her that “education is a path to escape the cycle of poverty and criminal recidivism.”
Nixon was passionate about the problem: “When we include probation, 7 million people are experiencing mass criminalization and racial discrimination. … Women’s incarceration has not been fully addressed, however. Women are the fastest growing segment of the prison system.” According to the Sentencing Project, the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for women is 1 in 56. But the likelihood increases to 1 in 19 for Black women; 1 in 45 and 1 in 118 for Hispanic and white women, respectively. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics special report, “The number of children under age 18 with a mother in prison [has] more than doubled since 1991,” and, “Sixty-four percent of mothers in state prisons lived with their children before they were sent to prison, compared to 47 percent of fathers.”
Nixon declared that “Locking up women means paying the tab for the care and shelter of kids.” Her call for activism echoed Alice Walker from In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Those who fight for women’s justice are “womanish,” she said. “Freedom and justice for all means every woman,” she added. “We care about all oppressed peoples, and we must turn the current moment into a movement.”
Building a Network
FreeHer is an attempt to turn this moment into a movement – at a time when criminal injustice is undeniable nationwide, and the leadership of Black women is crucial to justice. The term is the brainchild of Andrea James. James, a founding member and executive director for Families for Justice as Healing (FJH), is a formerly incarcerated woman, former attorney and current Soros Justice Fellow. Her intention is to build a network of formerly incarcerated women and their allies to create change through action.
James met many compatriots when she was sentenced to 24 months behind bars and served time at the Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, the women’s prison “camp” made famous by Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black. James described that experience, collaborating with other incarcerated women, and the development of FJH in her book, Upper Bunkies Unite: And Other Thoughts On The Politics of Mass Incarceration, published in 2013. Since her release in 2011, she has worked relentlessly, traveling throughout the country to connect with other leaders.
Her Soros fellowship is “an incredible opportunity” to build this network, James told Truthout. She now becomes one of Open Society’s core change-makers: “challenging the overreliance on incarceration and extreme punishment, and ensuring a fair and accountable system of justice.”
Last year, James and members of FJH, held a rally in Washington, DC, to bring attention to the needs of female prisoners, unjust sentencing, and the inequities of justice, and to demand an end to the mass incarceration of women.
The FreeHer Conference, this year, was the kickoff for James’ Soros Justice project. The Open Society Foundation is funding James, one of only 15 to be so honored by the foundation this year, to create a national network.
In an interview, James said she aims to expand awareness of how prison and jail impact women, their children and their communities: “My purpose is to connect those I have met throughout the country, who are doing work to restructure the criminal justice system, and to bring on board other formerly incarcerated women – with the goal of giving everybody a bird’s-eye view of what’s going on.” To that end, James organized the conference with panels according to theme, and panel by panel, the conference speakers articulated both current activism and ideas to inspire leaders to future action.
Ending the Criminalization of Women
Kemba Smith never touched a drug but was the girlfriend of a man who sold drugs, and still, in 1994, she received a 24 and a half-year sentence, making her a poster child for overly-harsh mandatory-minimum sentencing policies. Her book Poster Child tells the story of her path from being a college student to experiencing domestic violence to giving birth to her son behind bars at 23 – and finally to receiving executive clemency after six and one-half years.
Smith acknowledged that she was one of the lucky ones. She has been able to turn her unjust criminalization into a book, a movie, and a series of speaking engagements around the country, fighting for those left behind. “There are still thousands of women in prison,” said James, adding to Smith’s story. “And young women are still going to prison for things they should not be going to prison for.” The National Institute of Corrections estimates, as of 2013, 1 million women were under some kind of correctional control.”
Throughout the day, advocates said the United States must end the criminalization of women because of addiction, poverty, race and sexual violence.
Smith left behind a son when she went to prison. She said that years later, after her release, he told her,”As much as you tried to make my life normal, it wasn’t.”
Jasmine Barclay was one of those youngsters left behind. “One in nine African Americans have a parent in prison,” said Ellen Barry, a social justice activist who has worked on behalf of prisoners, their children and their families for her entire career.
Barclay’s short film, When Life Hands You Lemons, tells the story of how her father was incarcerated when she was 14, and her family, including her mother, turned their backs on her. But Barclay didn’t cave. In a summer youth program, she worked at a local TV station and got involved in creating and producing films to deal with her pain. Barclay is now connecting with others, teaching film at that same station, attending college, and acting as a support for other young men and women who have family members behind bars. She said, “When someone dies, people send a casserole, but when your parent goes to prison, no one is sending anything.”
Powerhouse Deborah Peterson Small brought down the house when she shared her vision of “Why We’re Here.” Small, who has been at the forefront of changing drug policy and sentencing is the executive director of Break the Chains, an advocacy group fighting the failed “war on drugs.” She said, “The United Racist States of America” has allowed people to be destroyed. She said we must “bury that conversation” and understand that the real conversation is about “freeing our minds,” not just getting us out of prison. She challenged everyone to decide how to fight mass criminalization by deciding what purpose they had in this movement and what each could bring to the table. She received thunderous applause with her words, “What are you built for?”
Building a Movement
Barbara Fair, a community organizer in New Haven, Connecticut, who founded the original “My Brother’s Keeper,” an advocacy group, said she is the mother of seven sons. “Every one spent time in prison,” she added. “If not for our drug policy, I never would have been in this position. … Prison destroys and tears you down.”
In 2012, Fair testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights about the horrors of solitary confinement. At 17, one of her sons was sent to Connecticut’s Northern institution, a supermax facility, and the conditions there caused him to suffer a severe mental breakdown and lead to multiple hospitalizations. “Solitary confinement stole my son from me,” she told the FreeHer audience. “After 30 years of doing reform work, I have learned that we need to tear the whole system down.”
Now she is one of a number of women answering Deborah Small’s question by sharing stories of their lives and their family’s incarceration, creating organizations, filing legislation, testifying before Congress and working for change. Advocates shared bills they were working on, trending legislation and the value of education to create change in people’s lives.
Many spoke of how they have faced the incarceration of their children, partners or parents. Gina Clayton, founder and executive director of the Essie Justice Group, a nonprofit in California named for her great-grandmother, said that “One in 4 women have a family member in prison, but for Black women it is 1 in 2.” Her work, also as a Soros fellow, has enabled her to create a safety net for women with incarcerated loved ones.
Dorothy Johnson-Speight channeled her anger when her son, Khaaliq was shot to death, at age 24, over a parking space in Philadelphia. She created Mothers in Charge, a grassroots organization dedicated to violence prevention, education and intervention. Johnson-Speight knew that going inside prison and meeting those who had murdered boys like her own would be difficult, but she did, believing “they are all our sons.”
“My journey is different from your journey but it brings me to the same place,” she said. “Collectively we’re all just a sister away, and we’ve got to work together to make a difference.”
Christina Voight, a formerly incarcerated woman who gave birth to her son in shackles, was denied access to the prison nursery program for her son at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.
“When I was incarcerated, I did everything I could to teach women what to do. Women need love. If you can’t get it from the world, you can get it from each other.”
After her son was taken away, she sued and eventually regained custody, becoming one of the first women prisoners in a New York state prison to win a suit against the Administration of Child Services. In spite of the fact that she is a program coordinator with Soros Justice Fellowships, Voight said, the government doesn’t see her that way: “I am a violent offender for the rest of my life.” She summed up why the FreeHer movement was important to her: “Legislation begins with the true stories of people.”
At the end of the conference, Andrea James honored “Grandma” Phyllis Hardy, by giving her time to speak to the gathering on Skype. Hardy, who was released from Danbury in March, 2015, after 23 years and five months, had been ill and unable to attend. James said she had been the matriarch for many of the women on the stage at Harvard.
“When I was incarcerated I did everything I could to teach women what to do,” Hardy said. “Women need love. If you can’t get it from the world, you can get it from each other. We as women who are free have to help the ones who are left behind. We can teach them from the outside in.”
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.
Kayla Bower from Amachi Pittsburgh!!
PA Represent! Patrica Vickers from HRC – Philly, etta & Ursula from Let’s Get Free
The Youth Panel
Patricia Vickers showing her son Shakaboona
Patricia Vickers and Lois Ahrens
Families of Prisoners Panel
The Legislative Panel
etta cetera and Ms. Lillie Branch- Kennedy celebrating 10 years of prison justice solidarity & frienship!
Currently, more than 5,000 people in Pennsylvania are serving life without parole, a full 10% of the imprisoned population, a higher percentage than any other state. As people in prison age the cost of incarcerating them goes up while simultaneously their likelihood of recidivism decreases. Many of these people are deeply remorseful about the situations that brought them to prison and want to be able to give back to their communities by sharing their wisdom with today’s youth to keep them from making similar mistakes. PA is one of only 6 states that have no parole options for lifers which makes commutation the only possibility of release for these individuals, many of whom are now senior citizens.
From 1967-1990 about 380 people in PA had their life sentences commuted. In the 1970s approximately 35 people a year were given a second chance. But for the last 25 years, only 6 men and no women or trans people serving life have been released. The dramatic decrease in the use of commutation as a result of the “tough on crime” political climate has contributed to the explosion of the prison population and has left many innocent and reformed people serving excessive sentences with no mercy.
We believe the commutation system must be brought back into use and we have several proposals to revitalize this process:
Reform the Board of Pardons
Depoliticize the Board of Pardons
Currently both the Lieutenant Governor and the Attorney General serve on the board and the Governor has the final say on any releases.
Elected officials are overly-cautious because of concerns that any recidivism will reflect negatively on them and cost them their jobs. This is at the expense of the lives of many people.
We propose that no elected officials serve on the board and that the governor no longer has a vote (though they still would appoint the board). Six states already have this system (Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, South Carolina, Utah).
Diversify the Boardof Pardons
In addition to the current positions for a psychiatrist, a criminal justice expert, and a victims advocate, the board could include:
a formerly incarcerated person
a reentry support professional
a human rights advocate
a member of a police oversight board
a trauma specialist
a restorative justice professional
It is also important for the board to reflect the communities most impacted by violence. It is irresponsible for there to be no Black people on the board when 66% of all lifers and 77% of all juvenile lifers are people of color in Pennsylvania.
Institute Regional Full-Time Pardon Boards
Currently, 5 people with other full-time jobs are tasked with deciding the fate of hundreds of lifers who apply for commutation as well as all other currently incarcerated and released people with felony convictions seeking commutation. There is no possible way that they can take the time to consider each individual’s situation and make an informed decision.
We propose that there be at least 3 regional boards (Eastern, Central, Western) staffed by full-time members to enable them to give the lives in their hands the attention they deserve.
Reform Public Hearings
Give Equal Time to Both Sides
As it stands, the applicant is given 15 minutes to present their case and the District Attorney and Victim’s Advocate are each given 15 minutes, which leads to the opposition getting twice as much time. This imbalance needs to be righted.
Mandate Public Hearings at Certain Benchmarks
Currently, there is no transparency on when a hearing is granted. We believe that granting a hearing should be discretionary in general, but that if someone has served 20 years, is housed in an honors unit, and has been recommended for release by prison officials, they should automatically be eligible for a public hearing.
Reform the Commutation Process
Require a Written Reason for Denial
Three other states require that the board provide a reason for denial to any applicant. This measure ensures that each case has in fact been considered. It also provides the applicant with an understanding of the judgement that has been handed down.
Provide Clear Requirements for Reapplying
In the current system inmates can reapply 2 years after their denial (which itself often takes as much as 3 years) and many continue to do so without any changes in their application, contributing to the backlog of cases. If the board provides both a reason for denial and clear steps to undertake before reapplying it will give prisoners something to work towards, increase the likelihood of commutation being granted, and eliminate unnecessary paperwork.
Require 15 Years of Time Served Before First Lifer Application or 10 Years if Under 27 When Convicted
This is already an unwritten rule. We propose that it be made explicit to discourage wasting resources on early applications. Once it is established, it will no longer be reasonable to merely cite time or the crime itself as a reason for denial.
Acknowledge that All People are Capable of Change
Anyone, no matter what their crime, can change dramatically in 15 years and all cases must be considered on their own merit. Gut reactions to certain crimes keep us from recognizing the complex histories and individual stories of their perpetrators. We must not reduce people to their convicted crime, and have faith in their potential to transform and contribute to society. The question should not be why should someone get a second chance, but why shouldn’t they.
Allow the Wrongfully-Convicted Access to Commutation
Many innocent & wrongly convicted people are sentenced to life, but under current rules, admission of guilt is required for commutation. Emotional maturity, good character, and meaningful participation in prison life should be sufficient when a person asserts their innocence.
Rescind Unanimous Vote Requirement for Lifers
Since 1997 the PA constitution has required a unanimous vote for the commutation of life or death sentences. We recommend a return to a majority vote since this level of agreement has brought the system to a halt.
Eliminate Lifelong Consequences
If a person is granted commutation, after a clearly defined period of parole, they should be completely free from the criminal justice system and have their civil rights restored (voting, running for public office, etc.)
This is platform is a work in progress. For thoughts, concerns, advice and counsel please email LetsGetFreePA@gmail.com