A proposed amendment to Pennsylvania’s constitution would change how the state considers pardons

‘Pennsylvania, like so many other states, adopted a tough-on-crime approach to justice which is judged by many to be a failure,’ Rep. Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia) testified.

By: - October 30, 2023 10:14 pm

Rep. Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia), the state Speaker of the House, testified before the state House Judiciary Committee Oct. 30, 2023. (Screen capture)

Kevin Butler is a community organizer, a youth mentor, and has collaborated with state legislators and Philadelphia’s city council to help develop a strategy for reducing gun violence in that city. He’s also organized food drives to support senior citizens. And before his sentence was commuted in 2021, Butler was incarcerated for 32 years, on an 80-year prison sentence.

“More than $300 million is spent annually by the state to incarcerate elderly prisoners, despite the evidence that most prisoners over the age of 50 pose little or no threat to the public,” Butler told the state House Judiciary committee at a hearing on Monday. 

He was among those testifying in support of House Bill 1410, which would amend the state Constitution to return its pardon system to the less rigid requirements that were in place before the sentencing reforms of the 1990s. 

“Pennsylvania, like so many other states, adopted a tough-on-crime approach to justice which is judged by many to be a failure,” Pa. House Speaker Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia) testified. “Policymakers, advocates and academics agree that our knee-jerk policy did little to make Pennsylvanians safer, and instead bloated our correctional population, costing millions of taxpayer dollars and disproportionately impacting residents along both racial and socioeconomic lines.”

A former public defender, McClinton is the prime sponsor of HB1410. The bill would do away with the requirement that the state Board of Pardons has to vote unanimously to recommend a person for a commutation of their sentence or a pardon from the governor. 

“My legislation returns it to the standard majority vote requirements, obtaining three out of five votes in order for the board to make a recommendation to the governor that a sentence be commuted or a pardon be issued,” McClinton said.  

‘Pardon Me’ documentary aims to raise awareness about Pennsylvania’s pardon process

She added that the bill does not offer or guarantee a pardon or commutation to any person, but rather returns state law to the standard that was in place for decades.

Pardons used to be relatively common, Bryan Widenhouse, senior policy associate with Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), testified before the committee, “until a policy change created an insurmountable obstacle.” 

Widenhouse testified that between 1971 and 1994, Pennsylvania’s governors commuted the sentences of 285 people. That number plummeted by 90% after a 1997 constitutional amendment that established the requirement for a unanimous vote by the pardon board, Widenhouse added. 

According to the Board of Pardons website, between 1995 and 2015, a total of 59 pardons were granted among five governors. 

“The number of people who benefit from clemency should be reflected by the number of people who are worthy of receiving that clemency,” Widenhouse said. Such a dramatic drop did not mean fewer people were suddenly worthy of clemency, he added. “We can’t continue to turn a blind eye to people who are worthy and deserving of second chances.”

Bryan Widenhouse of FAMM testifies before the Pa. House Judiciary Committee Oct. 30, 2023 (Screen capture)

Widenhouse said he served 31 years on a life sentence in Louisiana, and only received a second chance because the US Supreme Court outlawed mandatory life sentences for juveniles in 2021. Now a married homeowner, Widenhouse was 17 when he went to prison.

 “If I had been just 10 months older, I would still be in prison today,” he said. “The truth is, there are many people languishing in prison who are just like me and could safely be returned to their families to help us build our communities better and stronger.”

Nancy Leichter wrote to the Board of Pardons and testified on behalf of two brothers, who had been sentenced to life in prison in connection with the death of her father Leonard in 1980.  Reid and Wyatt Evans “made the fateful decision” to accompany a friend in a kidnapping and carjacking, Nancy Leichter testified Monday, but when Leonard told them he had a heart condition, they took him to a phone booth where he called for help. Leonard had a heart attack and died several hours later. 

But the Evans brothers, Leichter testified, had shown compassion and deserved consideration. “These two brothers did not deserve to die in prison,” she said, and while they were accomplices to the crime, she said they did not intend for her father to die. “They didn’t even know he had died until they were arrested,” she said. In March of 2021, with Nancy Leichter’s support, Gov. Tom Wolf commuted the Evans brothers’ sentences, and they were released from prison. 

“The Evans brothers certainly deserve to be punished for the crime, and they were,” Leichter testified Monday. “But at some point, there must be justice for those like the Evans brothers, who deserve a second chance.”

House Bill 1410 will be considered for a vote at a Judiciary Committee meeting in November.


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Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim Lyons is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications. Follow her on Threads @social_kimly