The Lead

Facing pushback, Shapiro announces support for constitutional amendment changing voting requirements for commutations

By: - January 28, 2020 6:17 pm

Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro (center), flanked by Sens. Vince Hughes (L) and Pat Browne (R) discusses the effectiveness of a school safety hotline. The three held a roundtable Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019 with students in the Cumberland Valley School District, near Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo).

Days after the Capital-Star published an analysis of Board of Pardons voting data, Attorney General Josh Shapiro publicly announced support for legislation that would loosen clemency requirements for people serving life in prison.

Shapiro took to Twitter Tuesday afternoon to voice his support for a constitutional amendment sponsored by Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, that would reduce the number of votes a clemency seeker needs to commute a lifetime prison sentence.

Current law requires Pennsylvania’s five-member Board of Pardons to vote unanimously to commute a life sentence.

McClinton, and now Shapiro, think the board should be able to grant commutations with a simple majority vote.

Shapiro voiced his support for the reform in an email to the Capital-Star last week. His tweets on Tuesday made his stance public. 

The Capital-Star reported last week that Shapiro was the pardon board’s least likely member to vote in favor of commutations in 2019.

Fetterman, Shapiro say they both believe in second chances. Pardons board votes tell two different stories

The Board of Pardons voted on 41 commutation cases in public hearings last year. Shapiro supported just 17 of them — the lowest number of anyone on the board.

Shapiro’s votes against clemency seekers drew fire from activist groups who said the Attorney General was denying mercy to deserving offenders in order to protect his political interests.

Amistad Law Center, a public interest legal organization in Philadelphia, announced a Feb. 25 protest outside of Shaprio’s Harrisburg office to call for fair commutations hearings. 

Other organizations renewed calls to change Pennsylvania’s clemency laws, saying a single “no” vote from a pardons board member shouldn’t doom a commutation bid.

Celeste Trusty, a state policy director for FAMM, a sentencing reform advocacy organization, cheered McClinton’s proposal on Tuesday but said it could face long odds in Pennsylvania’s legislature.

She said a bill in the state Senate, which would amend the constitution to allow commutations with a 4-1 vote, may be more palatable to lawmakers.

It would take at least two years for either measure to take effect. Legislators must approve constitutional amendments in two consecutive legislative sessions before voters can ratify them at the ballot box. 

Trusty said prisoners seeking reprieves from harsh sentences can’t wait that long for a fair chance at clemency. 

“So many deserving people are being denied [clemency] right now,” Trusty said. “What’s happening right now needs to be addressed right now … what are we going to do until the law changes?”

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.