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Senate of Pennsylvania
Session of 2021 - 2022 Regular Session


Posted: January 22, 2021 12:54 PM
From: Senator Camera Bartolotta and Sen. Art Haywood
To: All Senate members
Subject: Votes by the Board of Pardons
We will soon reintroduce legislation to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution regarding votes by the Board of Pardons. This proposal was Senate Bill 884 from the previous legislative session.

Historically, the Board of Pardons could recommend a pardon or a commutation of sentence by a majority vote of its members. During the Special Session on Crime in 1995, however, the General Assembly approved legislation to require a unanimous vote to recommend a pardon or commutation for an offender serving a life sentence.
The floor debate in both chambers reflected the emotions of anger and fear that prevailed at the time. After the Board of Pardons recommended the release of one particular offender, that offender committed outrageous offenses, and a “tough on crime” response followed. Members of both parties expressed concerns, however, about requiring a unanimous vote in cases involving offenders serving life sentences. With elected officials from two statewide offices on the Board, legislators expected that outside political concerns would influence Board decisions. Members in both chambers observed that elderly and infirm inmates are costly to incarcerate and present no risk to public safety, but the requirement of a unanimous vote would preclude those inmates from receiving a commutation. Other legislators highlighted the number of inmates serving life sentences in cases of “felony murder,” where the incarcerated person neither killed anyone nor intended to kill anyone. Those inmates would have no chance for a commutation.
More than two decades later, we know that the concerns expressed during that legislative debate in 1995 have come true. We saw the explosion in the state prison population, requiring the construction of numerous prisons. We saw the backlog of applications filed in the Board of Pardons grow until it was common for an applicant to wait over three years for a decision. While the Board interviewed applicants leaning on canes and struggling to walk, research repeatedly showed that offenders “age out” of the violent tendencies of their youth.
Our legislation will replace the unanimous vote requirement with a requirement that four-fifths of the Board of Pardons vote in favor of a commutation or pardon for offenders serving a sentence of life imprisonment or death. This idea was suggested in both chambers in 1995 and was expressly endorsed by both the Majority Leader and the Minority Leader in the Senate.
The unanimous vote requirement has been an expensive investment leading to very little return for public safety. Please join us in cosponsoring this commonsense change to allow aging prisoners to be considered for a commutation and be released under supervision.

Introduced as SB694