Until last year, I was one of the more than 5,400 Pennsylvanians serving mandatory life without parole sentences, condemned to die in prison.
Pennsylvania’s mandatory life without parole sentences for both first- and second-degree murder means that everyone with these convictions receives the same sentence — death by incarceration — without considering level of culpability or an individual’s circumstances. But it doesn’t need to be that way.
Until 1997, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons operated under a simple 3-2 majority vote requirement to advance a person sentenced to life without parole or death to the governor’s desk for commutation. After a man whose sentence had been commuted was convicted of a high-profile series of violent offenses, the legislature changed this to a unanimous requirement, and Pennsylvanians in prison have borne the consequences since.
Thankfully, our state’s Board of Pardons granted me that unanimous vote in recognition of my extensive efforts of rehabilitation over my 37 years of time served. Through my efforts, and with the help of the From Cell to Home program, I was the second commutation in nearly three decades for a woman in the state serving a life without parole sentence. Now I work to help others receive the same grace, helping streamline the process of getting people’s cases before the Board of Pardons.
But there are legislative solutions that would help afford more people the grace I was afforded. There are current legislative efforts to change the Board of Pardons’ vote requirement from unanimous to a 4-1 vote (proposed in SB 884), or a return to a simple 3-2 majority (proposed in HB 2262) in order to advance to the governor’s desk for approval — both of which would allow the opportunity for more deserving people to return home to their loved ones.
The unanimous requirement for recommending commutation has contributed to the dramatic surge of aging and ill people living in our prisons, which rank among the highest in the nation for those serving life without parole. For most of these individuals and their loved ones, the commutation process is their only hope of relief from these excessive sentences.
Many of these folks, like me, have already served decades in prison, have long since rehabilitated, and pose little to no risk of recidivism. The Justice Policy Institute studied a group of life-sentenced people who were released after serving decades in prison for violent offenses. They found that when provided comprehensive reentry support, this population had a recidivism rate of less than 3% after five years.
While we work to advance legislative solutions to our mass incarceration crisis, we must ask members of the Board of Pardons to support more people’s applications for second chances and to move them to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk for approval.
We should not let the abhorrent behavior of a few deter mercy and grace for the many deserving people in Pennsylvania. We should be focusing on people like me — people who have been extended grace and are using their second chances to help those still fighting for relief from excessive sentences.