Friday, December 20, was one of the most dismaying days of my life.
As chair of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, I sat in a session where we contemplated the lives of more than a dozen people condemned to die in prison. Commuting a life sentence in Pennsylvania requires a unanimous vote of all five members of the Board of Pardons.
An overwhelming majority of the people who come before the board come from impoverished and abusive backgrounds, and are people of color who have been locked up their entire adult lives. Many were themselves victims of familial and societal circumstances that statistically almost guaranteed they’d end up right where they are: in prison.
Mercy must be a partner to justice, and mercy lost on Friday when the board approved just two people for consideration by Gov. Tom Wolf.
Now, these souls are all but guaranteed to die in prison.
We are failing to honor the Board of Pardons mission of mercy, redemption, and the final check-and-balance on our criminal justice system, as outlined by the framers of this state’s constitution. We’re also costing Pennsylvania taxpayers an average of $50,000 per year to warehouse each one of these inmates whose own wardens say they don’t belong in jail.
We must understand that many of those condemned to die in prison are not hardened killers. Many of those condemned to die in prison committed their crimes as teens, but they’re now men and women in their 60s. In many of these cases, the wardens of their prisons begged for their release during public hearings and pleaded that they represent zero risk to public safety.
Many of those condemned to die in prison were offered short prison terms, as lenient as four years, under plea deals that they didn’t take.
Many of those condemned to die in prison never took a life, but like the Horton brothers, they have served many more years than the actual killer.
Many of those condemned to die in prison suffered horrific abuse, torture and neglect during their childhood. Eighty-four percent of the Philadelphians condemned to die in prison are African Americans born into poverty.
Some of those condemned to die in prison may in fact be innocent, and that’s precisely why the framers of Pennsylvania’s constitution saw the necessity of the justice system’s last fail-safe: the Board of Pardons.
Many of those condemned to die in a Pennsylvania prison deserve mercy from the Board of Pardons to make it to Governor Wolf’s desk. That did not happen last Friday. Barring a significant intervention, these inmates — needlessly condemned to die in prison — will.