The Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation, a Pittsburgh based group that is pursuing criminal justice reforms for people serving Life Sentences. We wish to bring to your attention a number of problems with the commutation process that we believe should be addressed by this current legislature. There is a growing understanding about the significant personal, social, and monetary impacts mass incarceration has had on our state. We imagine that you share many of our concerns, and look forward to working with you toward more efficient and just Parole and Pardon systems.
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.
Restoring 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 elderly inmates released from prison will 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 meaningful restoration of this process.
We 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 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, Rwanda, Norway, and the United Kingdom, who are dealing with perpetrators of extreme violence effectively.
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 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/13/elderly-inmate-population-soars_n_1594793.html
iii ACLU (2012) At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/files/assets/elderlyprisonreport_20120613_1.pdf
iv Hughes, Vincent J., Chairman Democratic Appropriations Committee. (3/3/2015) Governor’s Budget Request FY 2015-2016. Retrieved from PAMoneyMatters.com website: http://www.pamoneymatters.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/2015_16GovernorsProposedBudgetReport.pdf
v Sacco, Francesca. (2014, September 13) Elderly Inmates Cared for at SCI-Laurel Highlands. Retrieved from http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/sep/13/elderly-inmates-cared-for-at-sci-laurel-highlands/?page=all