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How Stewart Greenleaf got woke - and what his retirement means for smart-on-crime reforms

In the twilight of his political career, state Sen. Greenleaf has become an unlikely champion for criminal-justice reform. But after he retires at the end of the year, the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee will almost certainly go to one of his more conservative colleagues.

Pennsylvania State Senator Stewart Greenleaf in his Willow Grove Senate office.
Pennsylvania State Senator Stewart Greenleaf in his Willow Grove Senate office.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT

When Stewart Greenleaf joined the state Senate 40 years ago, it was understood that he'd be tough on crime. He was a former prosecutor, after all, and a Montgomery County Republican.

He lived up to that promise, assuming the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary committee in 1985. He introduced harsh mandatory minimum sentences. He was the architect of the state's Megan's Law, one of the first public sex-offender registries. He brought lethal injection to Pennsylvania.

"I was tough on crime. We were trained in the law that that's what worked: Tough on crime would make our streets safe and our community safe, and so I induced bills to do that."

Then, something unexpected happened: He got woke.

After several decades of pursuing stiff punishments, he realized that his approach wasn't working. And there were unintended consequences, such as a prison population that increased 500 percent during his tenure, to 47,000 inmates in 25 institutions statewide.

Now, Greenleaf, a lanky, silver-haired 78-year-old who speaks in a baritone mumble, is serving out his final term — and spending much of it trying to undo parts of his own signature achievements.

"If it's failed policy," he said, "we should have the courage to leave it and let it go."

In the twilight of his political career, Greenleaf has become an unlikely champion for criminal-justice reform, though he's not necessarily the reformer advocates want. He's far to the right, for example, of Philadelphia Democrats who've introduced radical reforms such as a bill to abolish life without parole. But in the Republican-dominated legislature, he's what they have — for now. After he retires at the end of the year, the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee will almost certainly go to one of his more conservative colleagues.

The changeover will no doubt come as a relief to many in the Capitol who share a perspective that favors law enforcement interests. From that vantage, Greenleaf's committee is, as one Republican Harrisburg insider put it, "the place where good bills go to die." Among bills that have languished there are measures to enforce payment of restitution and to reinstate mandatory minimum sentencing laws that were struck down by the courts.

But for advocates of criminal-justice reform, his departure leaves an uncertain future.

"There's been a lot of work he's done in defending progress from behind the scenes that you don't always see," said John Wetzel, Pennsylvania's Secretary of Corrections. "It's not just about passing bills; it's also about avoiding bad bills. It's scary to think about who his replacement is going to be, what their approach will be."

For now, Greenleaf has set an ambitious agenda of 20 bills to pass before he leaves office. That includes: "clean slates" for people with criminal records, funding for indigent defense, protection from prosecution for sex-trafficking victims, treatment over punishment for people in addiction, increased access to DNA testing for exoneration, and a "justice reinvestment" bill that would save an estimated $55 million a year by automatically paroling people serving short sentences when they hit their minimum.

"To have a former prosecutor speak about these issues has been very important," said Marissa Bluestine, executive director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which worked with the District Attorney's Association on some of the bills.

In the mold of "smart-on-crime" Republicans nationwide, Greenleaf has sought support by touting the fiscal benefits, holding a series of hearings in March in conjunction with the Senate Appropriations Committee.

His goal was to "inoculate these best practices against attack."

"We could pass 200 bills, and it may not help," he said. "What does help is a change in the culture. You have to change public opinion, and the opinions of people who are part of the criminal justice system."

The path to politics

Growing up in Upper Moreland Township, where he lives to this day, Greenleaf had very different dreams — hoop dreams.

He played for the University of Pennsylvania, practicing for hours at the Palestra after everyone else was gone. But his 6-foot-4 stature, while tall for the state Senate, is petite by NBA standards. After guarding future Golden State Warrior Nate Thurmond in a tournament, he began to contemplate a backup plan.

That was law school, and a job in the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office. He ran for DA (he lost out in an intra-party scuffle), then spent two years in the state House before landing in the Senate, where he'd stay for 40 years.

The draw of politics, he said, was partly the competition. But also, "You could actually change things. Injustice was always an interest of mine. Even now, if I see something that's wrong, it really bothers me and I'm going to do something about it."

His was a prolific legislator, in the past session alone sponsoring more than 400 bills and resolutions, with an eclectic and sometimes eccentric agenda — the type of lawmaker who'd call to ban French wines after France refused to let the U.S. fly over its airspace in strikes against Libya.

He tinkered a few times with higher office, including a run for Congress in 2000 and a lackadaisical 2012 presidential bid that he said was designed to recast the debate around balancing the budget and reducing national debt. (It did not.)

But sticking around the Senate had its benefits.

"I don't have a lot of good qualities, but perseverance is one of them," he said. "You gotta outlive me and outrun me."

One of Greenleaf's hardest-won fights — the one he likes to think of as his legacy — was to allow child victims to testify by closed-circuit television.

He got a bill passed, but the courts found that it violated the state constitution. His response? "OK, we have to change our constitution." To do that, the bill has to pass in two consecutive sessions and then as a ballot question. That's a five-year process. Greenleaf completed it in 1995. Then, a court threw it out. It took eight more years to get the question on the ballot again, in 2003. That time, it finally stuck.

"I've always been drawn to the underdog, the person without the power and influence, and children are a prime example of that," he said.

Still, years later he'd draw fire from advocates of child victims for failing to take a position on a bill to abolish the statute of limitations for child sex-abuse claims. After the Inquirer reported that his law firm had been retained by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in related matters, he recused himself from voting but denied he had a conflict. The Senate gutted key provisions in the bill, which expired at the end of 2015-16 session.

Marching ‘to his own drummer’

As the crime rate became a greater concern in Pennsylvania, Greenleaf pushed tougher and tougher laws, his deep faith in the justice system reinforced by his years as a prosecutor.

Then, he began hearing claims of wrongful convictions.

At first, he recalled, "I said, 'I can't believe that we convict any innocent people. We vet cases!' When I tried cases, I went out with the county detectives to get additional evidence and interview witnesses."

Still, in 2002, he got a bill passed to improve access to DNA testing.

"Lo and behold, they start to come up with people who were innocent beyond all doubt. That really shook me, because I was there to do justice, not to convict an innocent person," he said.

He started pushing legislation to improve investigative practices, set standards for eyewitness identifications, and require videotaping of confessions. Then, he said, "I started to look at not only innocent people but our philosophy. It is counterintuitive. You'd think tough on crime is the way to go and you'd have lower crime rates, but it didn't happen."

Today, he thinks all he has to show for his years of promoting mandatory minimum sentences is a prison system that costs $2 billion a year. He's begun championing alternative sentences for drug offenders, instead.

As for Megan's Law, he stands by it in principle, but bemoans that it now sweeps up people who haven't even committed sexual offenses, such as people convicted on custody issues.

"I envisioned it as a law that would only deal with sexually violent predators: child molesters, pedophiles," he said. "Then, everyone else piled on."

Greenleaf has not tried to conceal what some might describe as a monumental flip-flop. To him, it's not political. "I just try to do what I think is right."

Senate president pro tempore Joseph Scarnati, who will appoint a new committee chairman, did not respond to messages left with his office, nor did vice chairman of the committee, John Rafferty, a Montgomery County Republican.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell, who as Philadelphia DA was a booster for mandatory minimums alongside Greenleaf, put it this way: "He has always marched to his own drummer."

These days, that drumbeat appears to have carried him out of sync with many of his colleagues.

As Greenleaf seeks to cut the prison population, others are working to preserve the economic boon prisons bring to rural districts. The senate recently passed a bill to make closing a prison a much longer and more difficult process.

When Greenleaf called a hearing to examine issues with the sex-offender registration law, Republican Sen. Wayne Langerholc expressed disgust at some of the testimony. "I'm having a hard time being here in Harrisburg in this day and age and hearing the feel-good story of the person that commits the crime, and tending to take away the focus from the victims."

At a hearing on compensation for people who've been wrongly imprisoned — something Greenleaf has been pitching for years — there was similar opposition. "I think the worst thing in the world would be to go to jail for a crime you didn't commit," Republican Sen. Randy Vulakovich said. "But you know we have victims of those crimes who have holes in their heart that can never be filled."

Rep. Todd Stephens, a Montgomery County Republican who is in a stalemate with Greenleaf over his proposed mandatory minimum legislation, said his priorities are not difficult to discern. "In the House, I think the Republican Caucus is very much focused on victims of crime and ensuring that they see justice."

He wouldn't say he's looking forward to Greenleaf's retirement. But, he said, "To the extent the two judiciary committees could work together and be in sync with one another a little more, I think that might be helpful."

It's against that backdrop that Greenleaf's last big legislative push is playing out, with stammering progress.

Greenleaf — who i backing his son, Stewart Greenleaf Jr., to fill his seat — may not be able to wait out his opponents this time. But he's patient.

"Other people will be taking over," he said. "You never do anything by yourself here."