Friday, April 13, 2012

Pennsylvania: The Unmerciful

William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, has an interesting piece at discussing the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons and its "nearly godlike acts of mercy." DiMascio notes that, until 1872, the governor "enjoyed unfettered discretion to dispense clemency." But a revised state constitution created a Board of Pardons which allowed a grant of clemency only after a majority recommendation. A second restriction came in 1997, requiring a unanimous recommendation from the board before the governor could consider commutations of life or death sentences. DiMascio says clemency has been reduced "to a trickle."

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, "all first- and second-degree homicide convictions carry a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole." And Pennsylvania ranks second only to Florida in the number prisoners serving life sentences without the possibility of parole (more than 4,300). DiMascio also reports Pennsylvania has "the world’s largest concentration of such sentences for crimes committed by juveniles."

While there was a time when clemency was possible after 17 years or so, today "it has become routine for the Board of Pardons to reject clemency applications by prisoners who have served 35 years, 45 years, or more." This is also the case even though applicants "have earned endorsements from their prisons; and have developed marketable job skills and plans for life after prison." For example:
One recent appeal for clemency came from 70-year-old William Smith, who has served 44 years for his role as an unarmed accomplice in a robbery in which the owner of a check-cashing agency was fatally shot. Smith has earned an associate’s degree in business and an electrician’s license in prison. He is also studying to become a minister. But he might have had a better chance of becoming pope than he did of persuading certain members of the Board of Pardons to support his plea for “early” release and let him live out the rest of his years with his brother, a retired Philadelphia police officer. Interestingly, no one from the victim’s family, the state Office of the Victim Advocate, or the prosecutor’s office attended a hearing on Smith’s application to argue for his continued imprisonment. Usually, at least one of those parties opposes clemency. Smith’s application was supported by three of the board’s five members: a psychologist, a corrections expert, and a crime victims’ representative. The attorney general, an ex officio member, was absent. The lieutenant governor, also an ex officio member, offered a resounding — though totally incomprehensible — rationale for his dissent.
The piece notes that is somewhat "ironic" that "amid such lushly appointed surroundings" (the State capital building) "mercy is dispensed so stingily." See full editorial here.

1 comment:

Paul said...

Oh that's so sad! Thanks for sharing this.

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