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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

 

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If the Risk Is Low, Let Them Go

Farid Cover Photo 1CMYKweb
Farid Mujahid, co-founder of Release Aging People from Prison (RAPP) Photo by Dave Sanders

How a man who served 33 years on a 15-to-life sentence is pushing New York’s intransigent parole board to release violent offenders who have aged out of crime, the fastest growing segment of the prison population.

Published in NYC Indypendent By Renee Feltz June 29, 2016  Issue # 215

Back in 1978, Mujahid Farid had already decided to turn his life around when he entered the New York prison system to begin a 15-year-to-life sentence for attempted murder of an NYPD officer.

Held in Rikers Island while his trial was pending, Farid studied for — and passed — a high school equivalency exam. Over the next decade and a half “behind the walls” he earned four college degrees, including a master’s in sociology from SUNY New Paltz and another in ministry from New York Theological Seminary.

In the late 1980s he helped establish an HIV/AIDS peer education project that grew into the acclaimed program known as PACE, Prisoners for AIDS Counseling and Education, and began teaching sociology courses to people seeking their alcohol and substance Abuse counseling certification.

By 1993, Farid had served his minimum sentence and was eligible for a hearing before the New York Parole Board. Given how hard he had worked to redeem himself, no one could blame him for being optimistic that they would agree to his release.

Instead, they spent five minutes asking him curt questions focused entirely on his original offense. Then the hearing ended.

“Not one bit of my progress and rehabilitative efforts mattered,” Farid recalls. “I was denied parole because of something that was immutable, that could never change.”

He was denied parole “again and again,” until his 10th attempt in 2011, when he was 61 years old.

“Over the years, the process breaks a lot of people down,” he says. “Many take it personally. I realized it was common parole board practice.”

•   •   •

Now aged 66, Farid recently met me at 8:30 am on a Monday morning at his office in Harlem, where he had been at work since the building opened hours earlier. In a firm and encouraging tone, tinged with polite impatience, he explained how upon his release from prison, he couldn’t forget “the broken parole system I had dealt with” and the men he left behind.

New York’s prison population has greyed rapidly in the last 15 years. Even as the number of people locked up fell by 23 percent, those aged 50 or older ballooned nearly 85 percent, reaching 9,200 people. This echoes a national trend of the elderly being the fastest growing part of the prison population. By 2030, they will number 400,000, or nearly one-third of the U.S. prison population.

While 50 may not seem that old, most medical experts agree that incarcerated people age much faster than those on the outside. They suffer higher rates of chronic illness and conditions related to drug and alcohol abuse, such as liver disease and hepatitis. Data from the New York Department of Corrections show prisoners aged 51 to 60 have the highest rate of mortality due to illness of any age group behind bars.

Most of these older prisoners are serving long sentences for committing violent crimes. Their first hurdle to release is a parole board that refuses to provide them with fair and objective hearings because of their original offense, even though they have not posed a threat to society in years.

“The parole board is co-opted by the punishment paradigm,” Farid says. “Even though the elderly have the lowest of risk of committing a crime upon release, they are being denied similarly to everyone else.”

Meanwhile, this public health and humanitarian crisis has gone unaddressed despite a renewed interest in criminal justice reform that has focused narrowly on nonviolent offenders.

So in 2013, Farid founded a group called Release Aging People in Prison, or RAPP.

“We realized we had to change the narrative from talking about long termers and lifers — which people in the community couldn’t really connect with — to talking about the elderly,” he says.

RAPP’s slogan—- “If the Risk is Low, Let Them Go” — draws on the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s own data.

According to the state’s most recently available report on recidivism by age, those released after the age of 65 return for new commitment at a rate of just 1 percent, compared to a 40-60 percent return rate for the general prison population

Farid Mujahid at a meeting of Release Aging People from Prison (RAPP). Photo: Dave Sanders

•   •   •

In 2011, the same year Farid was released, New York actually passed a law that requires the parole board to adopt a more forward-looking approach when deciding whether to release someone. Tacked onto the budget bill as an amendment, it instructed the board to “establish written guidelines” that include rational standards that measure a potential parolee’s current risk to society, in addition to noting their initial crime.

New York is one of at least 23 other states that measures those standards with a risk and assessment tool called COMPAS, which has proven to be more accurate than human intuition in predicting the likelihood that a prisoner will break the law again if freed.

“Even though COMPAS isn’t perfect, it gives us an advantage,” Farid notes, “because the aging population we are focused on scores low risk.”

It seemed like a victory. But even after COMPAS was adopted, the parole board waited until December of 2014 to issue formal rules on how to use the tool in its decisions. Afterwards, most of its denials remained focused on the criminal history of potential parolees.

This was the case for Dempsey Hawkins, who had been denied parole since he became eligible in 2000. Hawkins murdered his teenage girlfriend in 1976 when he was 16 years old. He had spent his entire adult life in prison and made extensive efforts to rehabilitate in the other areas the parole board would consider: he completed counseling programs and educational courses and had an excellent behavior record.

But in 2002, the board said Hawkins had “demonstrated no remorse nor compassion for her family,” even though he had written a long letter of apology to the family taking full responsibility for his crime with an extended discussion of shame, remorse and consideration of the family’s pain and suffering.

Then in 2004, all but two words of the board’s written decision were about the teenager who committed the crime, not the man before them: “We note your positive programming but find more compelling your total disregard for human life.”

During the hearing, Hawkins asked if there was anything he could do to “increase my chances for my next hearing.” A commissioner responded, “You’ve done many of the right things. You’ve continued to program well, and stayed out of trouble. Clearly, there’s no, you know, 14-year-old girls here to kill in prison, so we have to consider the crime.”

After the 2011 reform, Hawkins continued to be denied parole. In 2012, the board refused his release but noted that “[c]onsideration has been given to the assessment of your risks and needs for success on parole, any program completion, and any satisfactory behavior.”

In 2014, board members spent most of his brief hearing asking about the crime he had committed more than 35 years earlier and denied him again.

•   •   •

At this point, Farid’s legal instincts kicked in from his days as a jailhouse lawyer.

“I always knew the parole board was contemptuous,” he recalls.

He suspected board members were now violating state law by failing to consider all factors in a person’s record when deciding whether or not to release them. So he began advising prisoners to file what is called an “Article 78” with the state Supreme Court, which is basically a request for a judge to review a decision made by a New York State agency.

Some judges responded positively and ordered the board to hold a new hearing — called a de novo hearing. Farid realized the parole board would likely issue similar denials. But this would allow a prisoner to then file a contempt of court motion.

“It is not common, especially for someone behind the walls, to get a contempt order in their favor against government authorities,” Farid says. “But the dynamics at play now are that the courts feel they are being disrespected by the parole board.”

“One of the real positive things about a contempt petition is it allows the person to escape an onerous process called exhaustion,” he adds, pausing. “I don’t want to lose you on this.”

Before a prisoner can even ask a court to review the parole board’s decision, they have to complete every other means of appeal. While this process can take as long as a year, he notes, “a judge can review a contempt petition within a month.”

In May of 2015, Judge Sandra Sciortino issued the first contempt of court decision for the parole board’s “failure to have complied” with her order to give a prisoner named Michael Cassidy a de novo hearing “consistent with the law.”

Cassidy was convicted in 1984 of killing his girlfriend and had covered up the murder until her body was discovered. Over the past three decades in prison he had worked hard to redeem himself, and his favorable COMPAS ratings predicted a low risk for violence, re-arrest, absconding or criminal involvement. But after his new hearing, the board again said his release “would be incompatible with the welfare of society and would so deprecate the serious nature of the crime as to undermine respect for the law.”

Judge Sciortino responded that while “the Parole Board retains substantial discretion, and need not enunciate every factor considered, a denial that focused almost exclusively on the inmate’s crime while failing to take into account other relevant statutory factors, or merely giving them a ‘passing mention’ [is] inadequate, arbitrary and capricious.”

The state appealed. Then about a year later, a second judge held the board in contempt. This time the case involved John Mackenzie, an older prisoner who sought Farid’s advice after reading instructions in a packet distributed by RAPP that includes boilerplate samples of how to file a contempt motion.

“It’s not a lot of paperwork,” he says. “I explain some of the complications a person may encounter so they don’t get summarily dismissed.”

Mackenzie’s motion succeeded.

“It is undisputed that it is unlawful for the parole board to deny parole solely on the basis of the underlying conviction,” an exasperated New York Supreme Court Judge Maria Rosa wrote in her May 24 response to the board’s denial of parole to Mackenzie. “Yet the court can reach no other conclusion but that this is exactly what the parole board did in this case.”

MacKenzie was convicted of murdering a Long Island police officer in 1975, and went on to turn his life around, earning degrees and even establishing a victims impact program. The board has denied him parole eight times since he became eligible in 2000. He is now 69 years old.

“This petitioner has a perfect institutional record for the past 35 years,” Judge Rosa wrote in her order, as she demanded to know: “If parole isn’t granted to this petitioner, when and under what circumstances would it be granted?”

She ordered the state to pay a $500-per-day fine for each day it delayed giving him another de novo hearing. Again, the state appealed.

In June a higher court dealt reformers a setback when it reversed the Cassidy decision. It said the board had recognized factors other than his original crime when it noted he “had serious alcohol problems since he was a teenager,” and concluding he had “a high probability of a return to substance abuse upon his reentry into society” even though he had been sober since 1997.

Cassidy’s lawyer Alan Lewis plans to ask the Court of Appeals to reinstate the lower court’s contempt finding.

“Every litigant has an obligation to abide by a court’s order, government agencies included,” Lewis told The Indypendent.

He praised RAPPs work on similar cases, saying, “It raises awareness of the plight of aging inmates and the injustices sometimes suffered by them.”

“Judges are starting to realize there is this huge problem,” agrees MacKenzie’s lawyer, Kathy Manley. She says other attorneys have sought her advice and are filing additional contempt motions.

•   •   •

As these contempt cases wind through the legal system, no judge has taken the next step to override the parole board and release a prisoner who has been denied a fair hearing, out of deference to separation of powers. But Manley notes this concept can be applied in another way.

“If the original judge sentences a person to 30-years-to-life, then once they reach the minimum point there is an expectation they should be released if they’ve done well,” Manley explains. “But in my client’s case the judge said the board is applying its own penal philosophy.”

The former chair of the state’s parole board, Edward Hammock, made a similar point in an essay titled, “A Perspective on Some Procedures That Unfairly Delay Prisoner Release.”

“Some of these determinations fly in the face of judicial sentencing and sentences that flow from plea agreements between the court, counsel for the defendant, and the prosecutor,” Hammock observed.

Ultimately, the parole board falls under the authority of the executive branch. Its members are appointed by the governor for 6-year terms. But beyond backing the reform in 2011, Governor Andrew Cuomo has done little to address the problem, and cut the board down from 19 to 14 members during his first year in office and appointed as its chair Tina Stanford, former Director of the state’s Office of Victim Services. She has been Chairwoman of the Crime Victims Board since 2007 and before that was an Assistant District Attorney and prosecutor.

Advocates note New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office could also decline to file appeals as it represents the board in the contempt of court cases. RAPP is currently approaching state lawmakers to ask them to request that Schneiderman issue an advisory to the board in response to the contempt rulings.

Meanwhile these lawmakers continue to consider additional legislative reform, such as the SAFE Parole Act, which would require parole hearings to take place in person instead of via video stream. It would also record the hearings, which are currently closed to the public. But this is the second year it failed to reach a vote.

•   •   •

As the legislature’s 2016 session ends and advocates wait to hear from the attorney general whether he plans to reign in the state’s parole board, RAPP continues its community outreach. When the group’s older members meet with policy makers and the public, their very presence helps give a face to elders who are still behind bars and could be included in the push to end mass incarceration.

At a recent RAPP meeting, 71-year-old Abdul Rahman, who served 45 years in prison, apologized for being late, noting he was suffering from a cold that had “slowed me down.” At the same time, he pulled out a stack of business cards he collected after speaking to advocates for the elderly in Brooklyn.

“Many of them approached me afterwards with great interest,” he said.

The meeting was a mix of people over age 60 who had been released from prison in recent years or had loved ones still inside, and interns in their twenties. One asked for advice on discussing the needs of elders during an upcoming exchange with the city’s Department for the Aging or DFTA.

“They should be ready for more people getting out than before,” Farid responded.

“Emphasize their post-prison potential and the contributions they can make to society,” added Laura Whitehorn. “People should be judged on who they are now.”

Whitehorn spent 14 years behind bars for a conspiracy to blow up symbols of domestic racism and U.S. foreign policy, and has helped ensure aging political prisoners and their analysis are included in RAPP’s efforts.

This comes across in the lineup of a July 9 event RAPP is hosting with the Senior Citizen & Health Committee of Community Board 12 in Queens, an area that is home to 10 senior centers and where many former inmates are being released. The event includes a workshop titled “Breaking the Cycle of Permanent Punishment,” and one of the speakers is Sekou Odinga, a former member of the Black Liberation Army who spent 33 years in federal and state custody.

“We incorporate the political prisoner issue in our work because we are dealing with the punishment paradigm as the root of what we have to get at,” Farid notes.

In early June, a former Black Panther locked up on charges related to his activities more than three decades ago was denied parole, and another lost his Article 78 challenge: Robert Seth Hayes and Maliki Shakur Latine, who both have at exemplary records, and COMPAS scores that show them to be at low risk of reoffending. Hayes suffers from Hepatitis C and Type II diabetes.

“These are the people who I consider to have been the the canaries in the coal mine,” Farid says. “I don’t think we’re going to really see anything substantive take place unless we see it happen with them.”

It is another example of how RAPP is making sure that no one is left behind.

“It’s not about getting handrails in the prisons,” Farid says of RAPP’s strategy. “It’s about getting people out.”

Then he turns to answer the phone call of a prisoner who says he’s been denied parole, again.


RAPP EVENT on JULY 9

Release Aging People from Prison presents speakers and workshops on Saturday, July 9 from 9-3pm at the Queens Educational Opportunity Center, located at 158-29 Archer Avenue. The theme will be “Elders in Prison: Bringing Them Home & Rebuilding Our Communities.” Details: RAPPcampaign.com


Paroled in a Wheelchair

Expenses from medical and geriatric care for elderly prisoners mean they cost two to four times as much as others. But there is a human cost to delaying their release as well. 

In May, RAPP member Mohaman Koti died just two months after he was released to a nursing home in Staten Island. His birth certificate says he was born in 1928, though his mother insisted the year was 1926. 

“We’ve got too many old people in wheelchairs like I am locked up,” Koti said just weeks before he died.

He was convicted in 1978 of attempted murder of an NYPD officer who he said “tried to shake me down for money and I wouldn’t give it to him, so we got to fighting.” The officer recovered, and Koti was offered a plea deal of seven and a half years. He insisted on a trial, and got 25 years to life. 

In the decades that followed, Koti gained respect from both inmates and guards for counseling young men who found themselves sent upstate to some of the most violent prisons in the country. He became eligible for parole in 2003, but like so many others, he got the usual denials. 

When he appeared before the board for a sixth time in 2013, he was so hard of hearing that commissioners had to keep repeating their questions to him. By then he was also suffering from several long-term illnesses. But the board decided he was still at risk of committing another crime, citing the nature of his offense.

After a judge ruled the denials were irrational, he was given a new hearing, and commissioners granted Koti parole in September 2014. But he was then ordered to serve an additional year in prison at a federal medical center in North Carolina because of a pending charge from the time of his arrest nearly four decades ago.

On March 16 of this year Koti was finally released. It was a pyrrhic victory. 

“The kind of life Koti lived when he got out — confined to a nursing home because he was not able to care for himself — shows that it was ludicrous to think he would have posed a threat to society all these years,” said his longtime lawyer, Susan Tipograph.

— Renée Feltz


The Indypendent is a monthly New York City-based newspaper and website. Subscribe to our print edition here. You can make a donation or become a monthly sustainer here.

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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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