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Commutation News Resources

Opinions: Commutation and Update on Lifer’s Bill

Commutation Update with focus on women

This was written geared to people in prison in mid December by Ellen Melchiando with input from etta cetera.

There has been a lot of media and excitement surrounding the changes made to the commutation process over the past year by Lt. Governor John Fetterman. November saw a historic number (21) of public hearings of people with life sentences. For the last 30 years it felt promising if there were 6 life sentence cases up for merit review a year,  let alone more than 2 for public hearings total! Naomi Blount and George Trudell, both recently commuted from life sentences were hired by the Lt Governor as commutation specialists. Brandon Flood, a returning citizen, was hired as the Secretary of the Board of Pardons and according to friends and family members, he’s doing a great job! There is talk of changing the unanimous vote at the public hearing stage from 5 to 4 votes. People are coming home! 

Naomi Blount speaking in Pittsburgh on October 19, 2019

Despite the progress, which is unquestionably important and exciting, the outcomes of merit reviews and public hearings for women seeking commutation has been disappointing.

In 2018, the previous makeup of the board of pardons resulted in the votes for recommending Tina Brosius and she made it successfully with Governor Wolf’s signature. She was the first woman in PA to receive commutation in 30 years.

This year we have had 6 women make it to the public hearing stage. The current members of the BOP have commuted two: Naomi Blount and Magaleen Stewart. As you know both Henrietta Harris and Cynthia Gonzalez’s applications have been resting in the mysterious “reconsideration” pause pile.  Naomi was recommended in May and released in July. Magaleen and Naomi are now both in Philly at the same facility. They are allowed to sign out from 7am – 7pm and need permission to leave the city. They are very strict about people spending the night out though they made exceptions for this recent holiday – for Naomi.

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.  This doubly places the importance in having the institution’s recommendation. We witnessed these changes to the process at Magaleen Stewart and Terri Harper’s public hearing. SCI Muncy’s Deputy Frantz spoke to the board in support of Terri’s release.  SCI Muncy’s Superintendent Wendy Nicholas spoke in support of Magaleen Stewart.

What if a staff person supports the applicant but the institution as a whole doesn’t? Will they break from their superiors and support this person at a public hearing? This scenario is possible.  What if the culture within a prison doesn’t support a second chance for lifers and long-termers?

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. The Facility Managers at Muncy and Cambridge Springs are Superintendents Wendy Nicholas and Lonnie Oliver respectively. A person can also request a supportive staff person to be included too.

A note about the video interviews with Wetzel before the Merit Review: 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. Your application will not get to the merit review until this interview happens.

After a person passes the merit review, they are moved to SCI Camp Hill for an in-person interview a few days before the hearings. One last noted change is that the prison staff person who supports the applicant at the public hearing will be attending the in-person interview at Camp Hill.

Take a look at the DOC policy on commutation at your law library: 11.4.1

At the September hearings, there was a surprise break from protocol, the Lieutenant Governor spotted Naomi Blount in the audience and asked her to speak on behalf of Magaleen! She did this by walking up to the members on the dais and spoke lovingly of Maggie. Then at the end of the hearing, the Attorney General rushed down from the dais to give Naomi a hug along with wishes for her continued success!  This was indeed surprising and proves that things can change. It also demonstrates how much power people have- it turns out you can just call someone you see in the audience to testify!

One of the most challenging aspects for women lifers (and men, too) who are pursuing commutation is to explain the role they played in the crime. It is very important to have someone proofread your application before submission. The other challenges are knowing how much to share about what led up to the crime. For women in general, this cannot be omitted or separated. That’s my opinion. 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.

Currently we are tracking outcomes of staffing, merit reviews and public hearings based on the generalization of the type of criminal convictions of women: battered women, arson, infanticide, trafficking, mental illness, law enforcement, 2nd degrees, DNA conflicts, the family, as well as time served, institutional support or lack of, and “escapes.”

The application was recently revamped again. All applications in 2020 must use this new one. 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! Get the application at the law library.

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 or check the law library. Don’t forget this: if you have a negative outcome at the merit review, submit the official Reconsideration form within 30 days.

To make sure your application gets reviewed by the current Board of Pardons who will be presiding until 2022, we are ESTIMATING that you try to get your applications in by July of 2020 at the latest. This is us guessing. You should technically be able to be heard if you submit up until December 2020 but you know how things go. Everything is always getting pushed back. There is a rumor that they are creating 6 – 9 new dates for public hearings, currently there are 4 dates a year. This would help with the increased number of applications and give you a better chance to go before this board.

What kind of support do your family and close friends need to prepare for the public hearing? Let us know. Encourage them to reach out to us if they have questions or just want some moral support. We want to be there for you. This is a link to the full day of public hearings in May  This at least lets you know what to expect. Below is a shorter video highlighting Naomi Blount’s hearing of the same day.

The 2020 dates for merit reviews and public hearings have yet to be posted.

Update: During the December 20th hearings of those sentenced with LWOP – 2 were recommended for commutation, 3 were held under advisement, 12 were not recommended, 1 was continued under advisement and 1 case was not heard and continued. Of the two recommended – Oliver Macklin, 63 years old, served 33 years of a 2nd degree charge. Fred Butler, 72 years old, served 49 years on a 1st degree charge. The longest sentence 49 years and shortest sentence 23 years.  We were very disappointed that many deserving applicants were denied including both Sheena King and Henrietta Harris.

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A Bill’s Path to Law, An Update on the PA Lifers Bill by Jane Hein

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. 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.

Shandre Delany, Saundra Cole, etta cetera, Ngani Ndimbie, Donna Hill at CADBI rally

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!

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Report Back from Rally to End Death by Incarceration and Heal Our Communities – October 23, 2019 by etta cetera 

This now-annual fall gathering in support of legislation changing the laws for lifers has the feeling of reunion for many. Recently released connect with old friends from the inside and people across the state who don’t see each other on the day to day get to hug, commiserate and rejuvenate. This year we brought back singing. After the usual impassioned and insightful speeches by lawmakers, returning citizens, family members, etc. at the podium, surrounded by hundreds of supporters with colorful signs, we lifted our voices harmonizing for redemption throughout the halls. The capitol building’s grand structure creates acoustics that bounce off the high ceilings and reverberate through our bodies. It’s quite moving. This coming together of like-hearted souls singing into the suit-wearing faces at the capitol. We wound back to the steps where an altar had been set up for anyone who had lost someone to violence to place a flower. This rally is a great place for someone who is looking to start participating in our movement to come. You feel the power of the collective. You feel less alone. In addition to all the good it does for the legislation, rallies like this keep us, on the outside, fighting another day. Accolades to the Philly coalition for all their stalwart efforts in pulling this off every year.

October 23, 2019 Photo by NateArt

 

Categories
Commutation Resources

Updated Tips for filing Commutation Applications in PA

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Naomi Blount pictured here is the 2nd women in 30 years to receive a commutation of her life sentences. Here she is in Philadelphia shortly after being released. We are so happy for you Naomi!

We just updated our Commutation Kit with the new information from the Board of Pardon (BOP) website.  Essentially, it’s all the information in this post in an easy to print pdf. All the kits have a copy of the new form for appealing merit review or public hearing outcomes.

These tips are tailored for people serving death by incarceration

  • Ideally you would have a lawyer represent you when you get to the public hearing. If you do not have one, Applicants seeking representation should contact: Ross Miller, Interagency Liaison Bureau of Treatment Services Pennsylvania Department of Corrections 1920 Technology Parkway, Mechanicsburg, PA 17050  Phone:  717-728-0377
  • When we are trying to find out if our people are up for merit review or what is going on with their application we contact John Johnson, Pardons Case Specialist Pennsylvania Department of Corrections 1920 Technology Parkway, Mechanicsburg, PA 17050. Phone: 717-728-0386 johjohnson@pa.gov 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 Johnson the week before the scheduled merit review to obtain the most accurate info.
  • Supporters can now email letters of recommendation to the board of pardons. Contact as of July 2019 is 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.
  • People in prison can get a copy of the application by going through a counselor. 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.  Let’s Get Free can send person in prison an application on request.
  • 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. Both Naomi Blount and Farouq Wideman were denied at the merit review stage last winter, filed the reconsideration letter, were granted public hearings in May and are now in half way houses as of July 2019 (glory be!) They are part of the 11 people commuted this far under Governor Wolf.

Upcoming Schedule for Board of Pardon Hearings

Thursday, August 8, 2019 – Merit Review Session – Senate Hearing Room – 3:00 p.m. Wednesday, September 11, 2019 – Public Hearing – Supreme Courtroom – 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 Thursday, September 12, 2019 – Public Hearing – Supreme Courtroom – 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 Friday, September 13, 2019 – Public Hearing – Supreme Courtroom – 9:00 a.m. -1:00 p.m. Thursday, November 7, 2019 – Merit Review Session – Senate Hearing Room – 3:00 p.m. Wednesday, December 18, 2019 – Public Hearing – Supreme Courtroom – 9:00 a.m.-1:00 Thursday, December 19, 2019 – Public Hearing – Supreme Courtroom – 9:00 a.m. 1:00 p.m. Friday, December 20, 2019 – Public Hearing – Supreme Courtroom – 9:00 a.m. and 1:00

NOTE:  The Public Hearings & Merit Review Sessions are NOT held at the Board of Pardons office.

  • The Public Hearings are held in the Supreme Court Courtroom, Main Capitol Building, Capitol Rotunda, Room 437, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
  • The Merit Review Sessions are held in the Senate Hearing Room, 8A East Wing, Capitol Building, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
  • Scheduled Merit Review Sessions and Public Hearings are subject to change as deemed necessary by the Board.

Tips for writing a commutation application during the Wolf administration Updated July 2019 By Ellen Melchiondo, The Women’s Lifer Resume Project

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. Supplemental pages must be used-no “see attachment.” Click her for application

If you are not in prison and assisting an applicant what I do is download the application pdf.  Then on my Mac I click on tools, annotate, text box. (Magically the text box appears without having to do all of that clicking! I don’t know why that is happening these days but its great.)

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

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

Section 2: 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:  Less information is asked here. I type two lines of text in bold between two lines for the narrative in role of crime: “place, role and caught.” Use a supplemental page if needed.

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

Section 5: is now totally optional. No more checking boxes to address reasons for applying. However, the line spacing on the page doesn’t line up with any font size or spacing! It’s terrible. So what I do is print a page, cover the lines with a blank piece of paper then print.  I type the narrative in Pages (10-12 font size)  then print on the paper without lines. Looks great and easy to read. Print more than you need. Remember to hit return a few times to get the words below the header.

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: the one year required residency at a CCC and then after if you have one.  You can list your supporters and how they will help you.  Be creative!

Section 6: sign and date. Mail to Mechanicsburg on Section 2. Keep a copy for yourself!

Do write a cover letter. State you are applying for commutation, list a few good points about your rehabilitation efforts, home plan if you have one and thank the BOP for considering your application. 2 paragraphs in length.

Good luck!

Ellen

Letters of Support and Letters of Recommendation

A support letter shows real support while on parole: housing, money, job, transportation, clothes, etc…

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..

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:

Re: (Your name) Commutation Support Letter

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,

XXXXXXXX

Reminder: Supporters can now email letters to the board of pardons. Contact as of July 2019 is Brandon Flood – Bflood@pa.gov and then he will distribute the letter to the board the applicant’s packet. It’s always important to send a paper copy to your person filing the application.



This following is all from the BOP website: Filing Of An Application:

When an application is received at the Board of Pardons office and is found to be complete and accurate, it is considered “filed.” A letter will be sent to confirm the filing of the application. If incomplete, it will not be considered filed until all requirements have been fulfilled.

Filing an application to commute a Death sentence to Life imprisonment entails special procedures. The presentation may last thirty minutes, and every filed capital application is granted a public hearing. A capital applicant must submit every pertinent piece of material at least ten days prior to the date of hearing. 

Board of Pardons Process Flowcharts for public and incarcerated cases are now available.

Incarcerated Process Flow Chart_Page_1

Incarcerated Process Flow Chart_Page_2



Procedure:

After an application has been filed, a copy of the application is sent to the following interested parties:

Board of Probation and Parole – Staff from the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole conduct investigations for the Board of Pardons. They will report all criminal history and driving violations found.  They will also conduct a telephone interview or an in-person interview in your home to provide our Board with your present personal status.

The following is a list of items you will need to gather in advance of the meeting with the investigating staff:

  • Residence: rental agreement, mortgage statements, rent receipts, etc. as applicable;
  • Marital Status and Family Composition: marriage decrees, divorce decrees, birth and or death certificates, etc. as applicable;
  • Employment: pay stubs, W2’s, evidence of income to include alimony, unemployment, VA benefits, etc. as applicable;
  • Resources: investment statements, life insurance policies, checking and savings account statements, total family income, value of all property to include vehicles, vacation property, rental property; etc. as applicable;
  • Liabilities and Indebtedness: loan statements, mortgage statements, installment (credit card) statements, delinquency on any utilities, etc. as applicable;
  • Membership in Organizations and/or other Civic Organizations: membership cards for any volunteer, civic, church related organizations, etc. as applicable;
  • Religious interests: interests and activities of the Applicant, as applicable;
  • Mobility and Travel: addresses and dates of residences for the past ten years;
  • Employment History: record of jobs held for the past ten years as shown by W2’s, pay stubs, etc. as applicable;
  • Educational History: history of education as shown by diplomas, certificates, transcripts, etc. as applicable;
  • Military Service: branch of service, dates of entry and discharge, type of discharge, rank attained as shown by a DD-214; as applicable;
  • Community Reputation and Reference: names and contact information of at least 3-5 references to be contacted by the investigating Agent, or letters of support.

If you do not reside in Pennsylvania, parole staff’s standard procedure is to send you a worksheet to complete followed up by a telephone interview to confirm the information contained in the worksheet.

You should expect a delay from the time your application is filed until you are interviewed.  This will ensure that the information regarding your present personal status is current and accurate when it is reviewed by the Board.

Department of Corrections – This agency is responsible for preparing a report for incarcerated individuals only.

District Attorney/President Judge – The District Attorney and President Judge in the county where the crime(s) occurred are given a chance to provide an opinion on the merits of every application. In cases involving more than one jurisdiction, a copy of the application will also go to the appropriate District Attorney and President Judge in that county.

Once all of the necessary reports have been received, the Board Secretary and staff will send to each Board Member in advance an applicant’s file to be reviewed for a hearing. The Board will grant a hearing if two (2) of the five Board members approve. Hearings for lifers or prisoners serving time for crimes of violence may only be granted upon approval of three (3) Board members. Attempted crimes of violence are included in this and offenses committed while in visible possession of a firearm, for which sentencing was imposed, will also require a three (3) member vote. If the required number of votes are not obtained, the process has ended and the applicant will not receive a pardon/commutation.

If a hearing is granted, the following individuals/agencies will be notified of the time and place of the hearing:

  • Applicant/Representative
  • Board of Probation and Parole
  • Department of Corrections (If incarcerated)
  • District Attorney, President Judge
  • Victim(s) or Victim(s) Next of Kin
  • Newspaper in the county where an applicant committed the crime(s) for which he/she is seeking clemency. At least one week prior to the public hearing, notice must be published stating the applicant’s name, the crimes(s) with respect to which the applicant has applied for clemency, clemency type, the institution, if any, in which the applicant is confined and the time and place of the hearing at which the application will be heard. Newspaper publication is required for every application to be heard by the Board.

A calendar is prepared, listing each application to be heard at the specified public session. It is distributed to all interested parties in advance of the public session.


The Hearing:

Hearings are held in the Supreme Court Courtroom in Harrisburg. The Board meets on a regular basis, as determined by the Board. On the scheduled day, the Board convenes at 9:00 A.M. for morning sessions or 1:00 P.M. for afternoon sessions. The Board’s secretary will call the session to order and the Board’s chairman will present opening remarks. Following the opening remarks, the first case, as listed on the calendar, is called to present their case. No more than fifteen minutes is allowed for each applicant’s presentation. Each case is called in consecutive order with each informal presentation adhering to the following format:

  • Applicant’s presentation
  • Supportive speakers’ presentation
  • Victim’s and/or victim’s next of kin’s presentation or anyone who would like to speak in opposition of the application.

Visit the Public Hearing Presentation page for more information on preparing for your presentation to the Board.

The Results:

Following the public hearing session, the Board meets in Executive Session. The Board reconvenes to vote in public. If a majority of the Board vote in favor of an application, the Board recommends favorable action to the Governor. If less than a majority of the Board vote in favor, the result is a denial by the Board and the application is not forwarded to the Governor. Life or Death sentence cases require a unanimous vote by the Board to be recommended to the Governor. The Governor, at his discretion, may approve or disapprove any favorable recommendation submitted by the Board. When the Secretary of the Board has received the Governor’s action, all interested parties will be notified of the decision.

Post Result Actions:

Reconsideration – A request for reconsideration of any decision may be made to the Board. The applicant must show a change in circumstances since the application was filed, or other compelling reasons, sufficient to justify reconsideration. Dissatisfaction with the Board’s decision is not grounds to request reconsideration.

Effective Monday, June 3, 2019, a formal request for reconsideration must be accompanied by a Reconsideration Request Form, which is prescribed by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons (BOP).  From the effective date and anytime thereafter, any request that does not include a Reconsideration Request Form will be automatically rejected by the BOP.

Download Reconsideration Request Form

Reapplication – An application may not be filed before the expiration of 12 months from a final adverse decision on any prior application. If an application receives two consecutive adverse decisions, an application may not be filed before the expiration of 24 months from the last adverse decision.

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Press conference at Avis Lee’s merit review hearing in 2014. She received unanimous denial. She is awaiting decision on her 6th attempt at commutation. We expect the merit review to take place in November. Tyrone Wertz, commuted lifer is speaking, surrounded by many supporters.
Categories
News

Avis Lee’s Merit Review Date Changed – Now August 8th

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Merit Review is one step of the long commutation process. You need 3 out of 5 votes to make it to the next stage which is a public hearing. Applicants are not present in person and an official reads the name and the board of pardons members say yes or no if they support. Feels very clinical, but it is public and community members do attend.
Before the Merit Review, each applicant has a video conference interview with the DOC Secretary Wetzel. He talks to them for 15 minutes and asks questions. He then gets to weigh in on wether he supports the applicant for commutation. We are curious how much weight the board of pardons gives to Wetzel’s recommendation. How can you decide a persons fate in a 15 minute interview?

This is Avis’s 6th attempt for commutation. For the last 4 applications she has had complete institution support for her release. We believe the people who live with her every day should should carry the most weight in these recommendations. Not the District Attorney who has never met her, nor Wetzel who has a 15 minute conversation with her.

Also, if you want to make a donation we could use it for gas, tolls, t-shirts etc.
Background:
Avis Lee turned 58 years old this past January. She was sentenced to Death by Incarceration (DBI) as a teenager and has served almost 40 years in prison. She was the look out for a robbery that ended tragically. This is her 6th attempt at applying for commutation. The last 4 attempts she has had full support of Cambridge Springs Prison.

For clarity, Commutation is different than the superior court case that the Abolitionist Law Center argued on the age expansion for juveniles sentenced to DBI. That case is still in process. For more information on Avis Lee Click Here

Board of Pardons Process Flowcharts for public and incarcerated cases are now available.

Incarcerated Process Flow Chart_Page_1

Incarcerated Process Flow Chart_Page_2

 

Categories
Commutation Resources

Preparing For The Merit Review: Commutation process

By Ellen Melchiondo, Women Lifers Resume Project

After attending my second merit review session with the Board of Pardons I wanted to find out what  factors in determining a decision to vote for or against a public hearing for lifers besides the application’s contents.  Secretary Wetzel interviews each applicant before the merit review and after the staffing. He reads the staffing reports. Many of us feel that if you get Wetzel’s approval that should at least translate to a yes vote by the DOC’s BOP representative. That is not the case. The battery of tests taken also likely influences their decision.

If Lt. Governor Stack embraces second chances and votes no, how does he get to that judgement?

I learned that once a commutation application is officially filed with the BOP, the application is shared with the committing county’s DA, judge or president judge, victims and possibly the magisterial district. This information is found on page 6 in the Pathways to Pardons booklet.

I am starting to believe that it is necessary that family members and supporters of a commutation applicant reach out and have a conversation with the DA and president judge before the merit review. At that time stress the applicant’s humanity and emphasize the support you are willing to give.

Recently an applicant was denied commutation after a public hearing even with the victim’s family support. The committing county’s DA opposed it. Would it have helped if the victim’s family in this case had a conversation with the DA before the merit review and the public hearing? (I don’t know which member of the BOP voted yes to move on to the public hearing. This information would help to analyze the outcome; three members voted yes for the public hearing.)   On one hand the DA’s MO is to protect the victims. But what happens when the victim’s don’t want the DA’s protection?! Who does the DA work for? Did the DA influence the AG and corrections expert who voted no at the public hearing? Interestingly, the DA and corrections expert are from the same county-Bucks.

This is a very frustrating process especially since we know so much about the nearly non-existence in reoffending by life sentenced people.  The reality of commutation for lifers in PA is dark and complicated but to not apply is not only giving up hope, it keeps the system in place.  By putting your life story out there and facing the consequences it is only then that we on the outside can push to dismantle it thereby improving the outcomes-possibly. Always file for a reconsideration.

PA Pathway to Pardons Guide

This is a 24 page resource guide published by Mike Stack – LT Governor

Categories
News

Article: After “powerful” hearing 3 decades later, inmate is eligible for parole!

We ❤ you Ghani, and hope to celebrate your freedom this September! There are so many behind bars who deserve a second chance at parole and commutation. Even after decades of incarceration, people are dreaming of contributing back to society and helping make things right. Support House Bill 135 in the Judiciary Committee so we can see more folks like Ghani get a second chance at parole!
Read more here 

Below are pictures from Ghani’s Community Resentencing which happened on Sunday July 23 in Philadelphia organized by Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI) and pictures of us the next day, Monday July 24th outside the JV court house during Ghani’s actual appeal hearing.

Categories
News

Photos and Video from June 23 Lobby Day

Thank you to all who made our Lobby day for Commutation Reform so successful! All the lawmakers who jumped into our press conference!  Harmony, Traisaun and Jeron of the Hazelwood Youth Media Justice Program for taking photos. Amazing participants from Action United, New Voices Pittsburgh, The Alliance for Police Accountability, Fight for Lifers West and East, The Women Lifer’s Resume Project, The Human Rights Coalition, and POORLAW. Thank you so much for spending your whole day with us. Your participation uplifts spirits, breathes encouragement into our issue and not to mention taking a whole day to throw down for justice and healing for people with life sentences. Big Ups to everyone who chipped into our go-fund me! Also, Nichole Faina and Michelle Soto for making us lunch and ice tea. More detailed information coming soon. If you click the photo below the video you will enter a slide show.

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Pennsylvanians Come Together to Push for Parole Reforms

restore logoFor 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.

CRMC endorsed by: Action United; Alliance for Police Accountability; Fight for Lifers West; Hazelwood Youth Media Project; Healthcare for the Homeless; Human Rights Coalition: Fed Up; New Voices Pittsburgh; Release Aging People from Prison; and the Thomas Merton Center

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Letter Mailing Party for Commutation Campaign Launch

letterpartycommutation

Help the Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation tell our Legislatures that we need Parole Reform in Pa Now!

Join us for a Letter Mailing Party.  Learn about the Campaign.  Get Involved.

March 29, 2016   6 – 8pm Tuesday Pittsburgh Theological Center 616 N Highland Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15206

Room 216 in Long Hall 

Childcare Available on Request – Text or Call etta – 443-603-6964 to arrange childcare or email letsgetfreepa@gmail.com

Let’s Get Free is a part of the statewide Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration

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., many of whom are now senior citizens. Restoring Meaningful Commutation is one way to help deserving lifers get a 2nd Chance.

 

 

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Let’s Get Free’s Vision for Restoring Meaningful Commutation in Pennsylvania

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

  1. 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).

  1. Diversify the Board of 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.

  1. 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

  1. 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.

  1. 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

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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