Coronavirus is raging in Pennsylvania’s state prisons. In the first 20 days of 2020, at least 27 people incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s state prisons and two staffers died of coronavirus — more than all of the fatalities between March and November. Overall, 91 incarcerated individuals and four staffers have died during the pandemic. That’s tragic, especially since some of those deaths might have been avoided by reducing the prison population.
Both Gov. Tom Wolf and Corrections Secretary John Wetzel have argued that reducing the size of the prison population — currently 38,300 — is one of the elements of the Department of Corrections’ response to the virus. However, the governor has backed away from using the only tool in his disposal to create more space for social distancing inside of prisons: reprieve.
The Pennsylvania Constitution grants the governor the power of pardon, commutation, and reprieve. The only one of the three that the governor can use unilaterally is reprieve; commutations and pardons require the recommendation of the Board of Pardons. Reprieve is a pause in a prison sentence after which the individual returns to prison. The time that they were out does not count toward the sentence. In the past, Wolf used reprieve to impose the moratorium on execution.
In April, Wolf announced a reprieve program — targeted at elderly and infirm offenders whose crime does not include a victim — that was originally intended to release as many as 1,200. The executive action was intended to be more ambitious than a Republican reprieve plan that included a cap of 450 reprieves.
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