Protesters call on Pa. Pardons Board to clear backlog of commutation requests

Commutation advocates gathered on the steps of the state Capitol Thursday to call on the Board of Pardons to extend mercy to convicted lifers. Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison.

The Rev. Chris Kimmenez knows a thing or two about second chances. 

The Philadelphia-based minister and veteran, who served time in prison and struggled with substance abuse, today counsels incarcerated people and their families through his faith-based criminal justice reform organization.

He’s also the father of a son who was murdered – and he witnessed his child’s killer become a church leader, father and gang-violence prevention advocate after his release from prison. 

“I watched the young man who killed my son get a second chance,” Kimmenez said from the steps of the state Capitol on Thursday. “What value would it be to take [offenders] and throw them away?”

Kimmenez was one of three dozen advocates who travelled to Harrisburg to call on Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons to shorten sentences for convicted prisoners next week, when it will meet for the first time in eight months to consider a slate of commutation requests.

The crowd, which included family members of people serving lifetime prison sentences, brandished the photos of hundreds more advocates who carried messages of support for incarcerated lifers. 

Over the course of an hour, they urged the five-member pardons board to let the aging prisoners return home as COVID-19 continues to ravage communities and place onerous restrictions on prison visits and programs.

”These men and women we are talking about are not throwaways,” the Rev. Eddie McCrary said. “They are waiting for this one opportunity to be the father, son, daughter, uncle, aunt that they are meant to be.” 

They also called out state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who sits on the board and voted against more commutation applications than any other board member last year. 

“If you claim to be a person of faith, vote yes on commutations,” Kimmenez said, directing his message to Shapiro.

Pennsylvania has one of the largest populations in the nation of people serving life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole. 

But it also has one of the country’s most restrictive clemency laws. The state constitution requires a unanimous vote from the five-member pardon board to send a commutation to Gov. Tom Wolf, who has final say to grant it. 

That stringent standard ground commutations in Pennsylvania to a near-halt for much of the 21st century. Things started to change last year, when Lt. Gov. John Fetterman took over as pardons board chairman and made commutation a top priority. 

The board considered more commutations in 2019 than it had in the 20 years prior. But its momentum crashed suddenly in December, when it rejected more than a dozen commutation seekers in a single day. 

Advocates hope things will be different next week, when the board will vote on commutation requests from 21 lifers. 

Many of those prisoners have been in limbo since the spring, when the Board of Pardons cancelled commutation hearings scheduled for April. 

Fetterman told the Capital-Star at the time that he wanted to avoid a repeat of the December hearings. He also didn’t want to conduct the high-stakes votes virtually while the state was shut down for COVID-19.   

That’s what the board will do next week, however, when it will hear virtual testimony from commutation advocates and victim families.  

Fetterman called the virtual session a “last resort” that nonetheless remained the best option as COVID-19 remains a threat nationwide. 

“It’s apparent that, in the interest of safety, we just can’t have people traveling from all across the state to attend the hearings, so we are adapting,” Fetterman said in a statement last week.

Kimmenez expressed cautious optimism about the virtual proceedings Thursday. He said in-person hearings would be ideal, but understood that they would be unsafe for incarcerated people and their families. 

He also said that prisoners and public officials have become more acclimated to digital communications since COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the country this spring. 

Pennsylvania’s county jails and state prisons have largely relied on video visits since March, Kimmenez said, so prisoners are more comfortable communicating on video calls. 

“I’m not not worried, but I feel better than I would have a few months ago,” Kimmenez said.