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).
2. 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.
3. 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.
2. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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