A Record 21 Lifers Are Up for Commutation in Pa. Does This Presage a New Era for the Board of Pardons?
Samantha Melamed September 10, 2019
James Inge, a man who’d been convicted of a 1975 robbery and killing, had invited the lieutenant governor to the State Correctional Institution Graterford to meet the other lifers and talk about the possibility that commutation — the lone, narrow path to freedom for those sentenced to life in prison in Pennsylvania — was once again within reach.
The year was 1988, and that lieutenant governor, Mark Singel, would oversee the release of just 27 of the state’s lifers before one of them, Reginald McFadden, went on a violent crime spree that left three people dead, ended Singel’s run for governor, and extinguished hopes for commutation in the state.
Now, three decades later, Inge’s plea for clemency is finally before the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons again, this time in the hands of another reform-minded lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, who is set on restoring second chances, particularly for those sentenced to life in prison who did not actually take a life themselves.
“We need to reevaluate and ask ourselves as a community, how much is enough?" Fetterman said in an interview. "Is that 25 years? Thirty years? Thirty-five? Forty? We have inmates in our system who have done 40 years and never taken a life directly. I think it’s critical that we examine that and, when it merits it, make sure we give them another chance to rebuild their lives and contribute to society.”
That commitment is evident in public hearings set to begin Wednesday for the largest number of lifers up for commutation that anyone can recall: 21 men and women, all of whom have served decades in prison and are recommended by the state Department of Corrections for release.
As well, Fetterman is backing a constitutional amendment to roll back the requirement that commutations be recommended unanimously by the five-member Board of Pardons — a rule put in place as officials were reckoning with the deadly error of releasing McFadden. State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, a Republican from southwestern Pennsylvania, and Sen. Larry Farnese, a Philadelphia Democrat, are poised to introduce legislation to ease it back to a four-to-one vote, which would still be a higher bar than the three-to-two majority required in the pre-McFadden era. (To take effect, the measure would have to pass in two successive legislative sessions and then be approved by voters.)
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