There are over 5000 people serving Life Without Parole sentences in Pennsylvania. In PA, ‘life’ means your entire life, which is why many instead call it Death By Incarceration (DBI). This harsh sentencing does not improve public safety and disproportionately impacts poor people and people of color.
A Bill’s Path to Law, An Update on the PA Lifers Bill by Jane Heign written January 2020
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. These bills are both called the “Parole Eligibility for Lifers Bills”. 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.
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!
The Commutation Bill – Rescinding the Unanimous Vote
- Representative Joanna McClinton (from Philly), introduced this bill to the Judiciary Committee on February 18th, 2020
- We spoke with Gabe at McClintons office. He doesn’t expect bill to make it out of committee this year because its an election year. He is glad we are out here and supports us!Bill would have to go through congress twice (two consecutive years) and then be put to a referendum to pass. The commutation process is written into the PA constitution – in order to change the constitution you need a referendum
- There is also Senate Bill that would grant 4 -1 instead of unanimous This would be better than nothing but not really what we want.
Memo from Rep: McClinton
In 1995, the General Assembly approved legislation that requires a unanimous vote by the Board of Pardons before an offender serving a life sentence can be recommended to the governor for commutation or pardon of a sentence. Before then, only a simply majority vote in favor of pardon/commutation was needed for a case to move forward to the Governor. During that time a quarter century ago, floor debates in both chambers were emotional and reflected the anger and fear that was present at the time because the Board of Pardons had recently recommended the release of an offender who went on to commit an outrageous crime, and a “tough on crime” mindset followed.
Many members expressed concerns about requiring a unanimous vote in cases involving offenders serving life sentences. Concerns were expressed regarding the pardoning of elderly and the infirmed inmates who are costly to house and who pose on risk to public safety if pardoned. Additionally, concerns were expressed regarding inmates serving life sentences for crimes of “felony murder,” where the incarcerated person did not kill anyone, nor had they intended to kill anyone.
Almost a quarter of a century later, many of the concerns expressed during those debates have become reality. There has been an explosion in the prison population and inmates are serving longer periods of time in prison and dying out of the system. However, the most devastating aspect of this problem is that it has created a backlog of applications filed to the Board of Pardons. It is not unusual for a pardon applicant to wait three years for a decision.
Our legislation would do away with the requirement for a unanimous vote by the Pardon Board, and replace it with a requirement of a simply majority – three out of five votes – in favor of pardon or commutation of offenders serving a sentence of life in prison. Our goal is to get as many deserving offenders’ cases to the Governor’s desk as possible and ultimately pardoned.
There is no reason to continue to overburden the prison system, or hold people hostage when they no longer post a threat to society. Please join us in co-sponsoring this import legislation that would allow aging inmates to be considered for pardons and released under supervision.
Solitary Confinement Bill – SB 842
This legislation seeks to reverse a harmful trend by prohibiting the use of solitary confinement on pregnant women, LGBTQ individuals, inmates age 21 and younger, and inmates age 70 and older and placing an absolute cap on the duration of solitary confinement at 15 days. It was introduced in 2019 by Senator Farnese (Philly)
Below you can see some news and videos from the annual CADBI rallies in Harrisburg