On October 18th, over 200 people traveled to the State Capitol to demand an end to Death By Incarceration and support House Bill 2135, which would make people serving life sentences parole-eligible after 15 years. Thank you so much to all who participated in this powerful action! #AbolishDBI
Photo Credit: Joe Piette, Emily McGrew, Patricia Vickers
There are over 5000 people serving Life Without Parole sentences in Pennsylvania. In PA, ‘life’ means your entire life, which is why many instead call it Death By Incarceration (DBI). This harsh sentencing does not improve public safety and disproportionately impacts poor people and people of color.
We believe that denying people the right to transformation and redemption is an affront to everyone’s humanity. Join the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI) and our allies from across the state as we converge at the state capitol to ask our legislators to end Death By Incarceration in Pennsylvania.
There is now a bill in the PA House that would make people serving DBI eligible for parole after 15 years. The bill is HB2135 and was introduced by Rep. Dawkins. But we need mass public pressure in order to move the bill forward.
The Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation Hits the Capitol
On Thursday, June 23, the Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation hit the Capitol pushing a 12 point platform that would change regulations and practices of the barely functional commutation process. About 25 people traveled to Harrisburg from Pittsburgh and 10 more from Philly. Upon arrival from Pittsburgh a devoted crew raced up to the office of Jason Dawkins, co-author of HB 2135, where he met them with open arms. House Bill 2135 was introduced on June 9, and has the ambition to Expand Parole Eligibility for Life Sentences. This bill would make people eligible for parole after 15 years served, and as Jason said in our press conference, “This bill would abolish life without parole.” Can you believe a State Rep said those words?!
Rep Ed Gainey from Pittsburgh gave a rousing speech at our rally in support of the bill. This is extra powerful because, tragically, his sister was murdered just a month ago. Additional surprise speakers included: Rep Joanna E. McClinton from Philadelphia and Delaware Counties, who was extremely encouraging and really applauded our efforts, and Rep Patty Kim of Dauphin County, who also stepped to the mic, talking about an impactful meeting she had with women at Muncy.
Some of our speakers included Mae Hadley and Donna Pfender, who spoke on behalf of their daughters who are serving life. Lauren Stuparitz spoke from the perspective of a victim – being the survivor of a brutal attack in Pittsburgh – she believes people deserve a second chance.
Reforms to the Commutation process we were pushing included: Rescinding the Unanimous Vote by the Board of Pardons in case of Life Sentences, Video interviews with lifer applicants before merit review hearing, and Written Reason for Denial of lifer commutation applications. And last but not least, HB 2135 Parole Eligibility for Lifers.
We scheduled meetings with legislators we thought could be potential allies, but were impressed with how many of them had visited prisons and met people serving Life. This included Republican Rep Tom Murt from Philadelphia, who deeply cares about veterans, and spoke of a friend of his who is a Vietnam war vet incarcerated since the 70’s. Tom wants to organize a public hearing in the Human services committee about LWOP, relating how LWOP affects the elderly, veterans, and its connections to mental health and addiction.
On the Senate side of things, Art Haywood, Shirley Kitchen and Greenleaf’s offices were encouraging, informative and uplifting. Liana, the amazing legislative assistant of Mr. Haywood’s staff, said they were interested in aging prisoners, and the idea of having a public hearing was talked about in several meetings from several perspectives. Rep.Vanessa Brown, another ally, had just visited Muncy and saw a lot of elderly women who she thought should be at home with their families. One of our lobby groups randomly met up with Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York, who committed to co-sponsoring bill HB 2135 and gave group a tour of the House. What support!
Anne Gingrich Cornick, the legal advisor for the Board of Pardons, was present in the Governor’s meeting. Ann read our whole platform in front of us and said that most of our points on our platform would require constitutional amendments. Constitutional Amendments require a 2/3’s majority vote – they need to pass through the House and Senate twice before being put to referendum – a public vote. All regulatory changes for the Board of Pardons must go through the Independent Regulatory Review Commission. (IRCC)
We learned the Victim’s Advocate position of the Board of Pardons was filled by a Pittsburgh resident named Marsha Grayson. For those of you in Pittsburgh, it is her family that started the Jeron X. Grayson Community Center in the Hill district. Senator Greenleaf’s aid told us she is appropriate for the position not only because she has the victim’s perspective, having lost her son, but that also, coming from the Black community, she understands the impact of incarceration on families and neighborhoods and seems to embrace many perspectives.
One official advised that our biggest obstacle was the District Attorney’s Lobby. It was said they have great authority and do not stand with us.
And so, where does this leave us? There is a to do list a mile long including writing op eds, meeting with lawmakers locally, coordinating statewide efforts to push HB 2135 and commutation reform, following up about public hearings, and building alliances with victims rights organizations. Leaving the Capitol we felt very excited and hopeful. We also felt the realness of the difficulty that lay before us. There is a long hard road ahead.
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.
Meeting with Liana of Art Haywood’s office photo by Jeron
Meeting with Governor’s people
photo by Harmony
Lizzie, Zoe, Mae and Saundra by Harmony
Uma, Loreal, Mae, Jordan, Teresa…
Group with Jason Dawkins and Ed Gainey by Traisaun Leake
Meeting with Governor’s people
Jess and Suzy by Traisaun
uma and devon with the contestoriaphoto by Harmony
photo by Harmony
uma and devon with the contestoriaphoto by Harmony
Meeting with Patrick Cawley from Greenleafs office photo by Harmony
For 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.
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.