Campaign for Meaningful Commutation!

People rally before Avis Lee’s public hearing to garner support. Pittsburgh Fall 2019

The Campaign for Meaningful Commutation, is a campaign that is seeking dramatic change in the state of PA’s broken commutation process. We took the word “Restore” out of our campaign name because the process was never great – we don’t want to go back, we want to move forward.

Pennsylvania’s Commutation Process: Naomi Blount’s Experience takes you through one woman’s journey of the lengthy and laborious steps of achieving freedom from a life sentence. Naomi Blount was the second woman to receive commutation in the last 25 years and celebrated her 1 year freedom anniversary July 5 of 2020.
Group of people stand behind hand painted sign that says "Restore Meaningful Commutation for Lifers", holding envelopes addressed and ready to mail.
In March 2016, we mailed our platform to State Officials.

In the 1970s approximately 35 people a year were given a second chance through commutation. That’s 380 commuted lifers from 1967-1990, but for the last 25 years, only 7 men and no women or trans people serving life have been released.(i) The dramatic decrease in the use of commutation as a result of the “tough on crime” political climate has contributed to mass incarceration and has left many innocent and reformed people serving excessive sentences with no mercy. Samantha Broun’s radio story, 20 years later, that was published on This American Life is a great way to learn this history.

Reforming our commutation process would allow us to redirect public funding away from imprisoning many aging individuals who are not a threat to public safety, and channel that money into initiatives for violence prevention. While aging people  released may require medical care and other public services, Pennsylvania could save an average of $66,000 per year for each of the 1,500 geriatric lifers released.(ii) Studies show that the chances of a person re-offending over the age of 50 dramatically decreases.(iii) The prison system is among the highest expenditures in the budget, costing the state more than $2 billion a year. (iv) SCI- Laurel Highlands (a Prison Hospital and Hospice Unit), cost $75 million to operate in 2014, almost half of the total cost of all prisons in PA.(v)

Working in coalition with a number of groups across Pennsylvania made up of concerned citizens, current and formerly incarcerated people, and interfaith human rights advocates, we have drafted a 12 point platform to restore Pennsylvania’s commutation process. We have prioritized three changes that we think could have a watershed effect on the this process.

We are asking officials to consider all aspects of our 12 point platform and draft legislation including these changes:

  • Return the Board of Pardons vote requirement for a recommendation of commutation for a lifer to 3 out of 5 votes, rather than the unanimous vote requirement.
  • Amend the commutation regulations of the Board of Pardons to grant an automatic approval for a public hearing after an applying lifer has served 15 years.
  • Require that the Board of Pardons provide a written reason for denial of a commutation application for people serving life sentences.

With the recent decision by the Supreme Court that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are cruel and unusual punishment, and also President Obama’s actions to commute the sentences of 163 people serving life, we believe the time is right to start addressing these same issues here in Pennsylvania. Please prioritize prison reform, and bring these issues to the legislature.

We believe mercy is a component of a Justice system, even in situations where irreparable harm has occurred, including murder. We advocate that a mandatory punitive response such as the sentence of Life Without Parole does not prevent further violence in our communities nor create a process for healing.

We are not asking that all people in prison serving life be released; we are asking that they have a fair chance to demonstrate that they are no longer a threat to public safety.

We have a lot to learn from the best practices of other countries, such as South Africa, Brazil, Rwanda, Norway, and the United Kingdom, who are approaching people involved in circumstances of extreme violence differently.

—End Notes

i   Ogletree, C. (2012). Life without parole America’s new death penalty? New York: New York University Press.

ii   Rudolf, John (6/13/2012) Elderly Inmate Population Soared 1,300 Percent Since 1980s: Report

iii ACLU (2012) At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly Retrieved from

iv Hughes, Vincent J.,  Chairman Democratic Appropriations Committee. (3/3/2015) Governor’s Budget Request FY 2015-2016. Retrieved from website:

v Sacco, Francesca. (2014, September 13) Elderly Inmates Cared for at SCI-Laurel Highlands. Retrieved from