And justice for whom? Pa. lags on commutations, new data shows | Thursday Morning Coffee

A survey of 8 northeastern states found an average of one commutation for every 10K imprisoned people each year

April 28, 2022 7:09 am

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

President Joe Biden made headlines earlier this week when he announced he was commuting the sentences of 75 federal prisoners  — including two from Pennsylvania — and pardoning three more federal inmates.

But as one reform group has pointed out, Biden’s decision to exercise the admittedly awesome powers of his office came nearly 100 days into his second year in office.

And while states and the feds have gained some ground on criminal justice reform issues broadly, they’ve still been pretty stingy about granting commutations, which make sense from both a fiscal and social point of view.

Taking a look at eight northeastern states, including Pennsylvania, between 2005-2021, the Prison Policy Initiative found those states collectively granted just 210 commutations during that 16-year time period, for a total average of 13 grants a year.

As a matter of comparison, the prison population in those eight states (New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island) was about 130,000 incarcerated people. That means those states commuted the sentences of about one in every 10,000 sentenced and imprisoned people, the research found.

And in 2020 and 2021, as the pandemic raged, causing prison deaths to rise by 46 percent, six of the eight states did not grant any commutations at all, the research found. New York and Pennsylvania were the only two states to issue commutations during that time period, the report showed.

“This lack of urgency is part of a disturbing larger trend: Nationwide, state and federal prisons actually released 10 percent fewer people in 2020 than in 2019, and on average, we found that state parole boards released fewer people in 2020 than in 2019,” the report’s authors wrote.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman [Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller]

Earlier this month, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who chairs the state Board of Pardons, and the panel’s secretary, Celeste Trustyunveiled a suite of reforms that they said would result in the most dramatic overhaul to the state’s commutations system “in decades.”

Chief among them, the board will roll out an online application system for clemency-seekers, including through a mobile app, which should make it easier for people to seek reductions in their sentences, officials said.

“By reducing staff time spent responding to status requests and locating missing documents, and drastically reducing our reliance on paper applications, we will be able to shift our focus and resources more toward the goal of our agency, which is to help people,” Trusty said.

The state board oversees two forms of clemency: pardons for people who are not incarcerated and sentence commutations which result in sentence reductions for people who currently are incarcerated.

While the new report points out flaws in Pennsylvania’s current system, Fetterman, who also is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, has touted the advances the panel has made since taking office in 2015.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, whose office is the last stop for pardons and commutations applications, has pardoned 1,906 formerly incarcerated people and commuted 45 life sentences, which is more than six times that of his four predecessors, Fetterman’s office said in a statement.

In 2020, however, Wolf faced criticism for a backlog of nearly 200 pardon applications that still were sitting on his deskThe Appeal, a criminal justice news website, reported at the time.

The administration told The Appeal that it was trying to act judiciously.

Wolf was “under no time constraint in which he must make a final decision on a recommendation for pardon, and takes that time to ensure his complete and thorough review and consideration of each recommendation,” administration spokesperson, Sara Goulet, told The Appeal at the time.

From left: Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Gov. Tom Wolf, and Pardons Sec. Brandon Flood. (Photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

In its statement earlier this month, the administration reaffirmed its commitment to streamlining the pardons and commutations process, noting that it had eliminated the filing fee for pardons and created an expedited program for people with certain nonviolent marijuana-related offenses.

“People’s lives shouldn’t be ruined by something most people don’t even think should be a crime,” Fetterman said.

In 2019, Fetterman announced that the panel had hired two formerly incarcerated people to assist in the commutations process.

“We’ve seen numerous instances where people just want to get back to their lives, but because of some minor weed infraction that’s still on their record from 20 years ago, they’re told they can’t chaperone their kids on a field trip,” Fetterman said.

The Republican candidates for governor debate on ABC-27 on Wednesday, 4/27/22 (Screen Capture)

Our Stuff.
During a fast-paced and occasionally testy 60 minutes on the debate stage on Wednesday night, the four leading Republican gubernatorial hopefuls sparred over their respective experience and qualifications for office. Story from me.

A Senate probation reform bill faces pushback from advocates who say they prefer the status quoCassie Miller reports.

State and local leaders gathered at the Capitol on Wednesday to remember victims of the Holocaust and to warn Pennsylvanians of the dangers of not speaking out against hatred and discrimination in the commonwealth, Cassie Miller also reports.

A top-tier Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor, among other GOP luminaries, put in an appearance at an event in Gettysburg last weekend that promoted QAnon and conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, I also report.

Still a topic in 2022, here’s what GOP U.S. Senate candidates have to say about election certification, and moving on from the 2020 election. Marley Parish has the details.

Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin is warning voters that detectives will monitor ballot drop-off locations and anyone caught dropping off more than one mail-in ballot could be prosecutedCorrespondent Katherine Reinhard reports.

On our Commentary Page this morning: We can’t overlook the danger posed by Christian nationalists, former Rendell administration spokesperson Chuck Ardo writes.

Let’s treat our pols like NASCAR treats its drivers. Put sponsorship patches on their suits, so we know where they standFrank DiFilippo, of our sibling site, Maryland Matters writes.

GOP U.S. Senate hopefuls David McCormick (L) and Mehmet Oz (R) | Capital-Star photo collage by John L. Micek

The GOP U.S. Senate primary is still up for grabs – even after President Donald Trump backed Mehmet Oz, the Inquirer reports, citing a new Monmouth University poll.

The Bucks County Courier Times has its round-up of this week’s GOP U.S. Senate debates.

Spotlight PA takes a look at Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro’s fundraising (via the Morning Call).

The Associated Press delves into the deep-pocketed fundraising by the millionaires in the U.S. Senate contest (via WITF-FM).

Tax relief could be coming to Allegheny County homeowners who are facing property assessment appeals, the Post-Gazette reports.

A central Pa. school has painted over a LGBTQ-themed mural crafted by students, PennLive reports (subscriber-only).

LancasterOnline rounds up the latest on the avian flu outbreak in Lancaster County.

Philadelphia’s carbon emissions are dropping — but the city still has some work to doWHYY-FM reports.

Taxpayer-funded security for Erie’s mayor? City officials are talking about it, GoErie reports.

PoliticsPA takes a look at the fight for the Lehigh Valley’s bellwether 7th Congressional District.

President Joe Biden will ask Congress for money to fight global hunger, Roll Call reports.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:

(Image via @mainstjukebox/

What Goes On
10 a.m., Montgomery County Community College, Blue Bell, Pa: Senate Democratic Policy Committee

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition)
5:30 p.m.: Reception for Rep. Tina Davis 
6 p.m.: Reception for Rep. Martina White 
Hit both events, and give at the max, and you’re out a truly offensive $27,500 today — the Martina White event features an appearance by House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, hence the $25,000 maximum ask.

Gov. Tom Wolf heads to Reading today for a 1:30 p.m. newser to tout his plan to spend federal stimulus money to help Pennsylvania families.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept
Best wishes go out this morning to Carolyn Myers at Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, who celebrates today. Congratulations, and enjoy the day.

Heavy Rotation
At long last, there’s some new music from Hot Chip in the world. From their upcoming LP, here’s ‘Down.’

Thursday’s Gratuitous Baseball Link
The Milwaukee Brewers got past the Pirates 3-1 on Wednesday. Watch the video for one of the best double-plays of the season so far.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.