Restore Meaningful Commutation for Lifers in Pennsylvania

For Immediate Release:rmc copy

Contact – (Bret Grote – 412-654-9070)

The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee and Decarcerate PA are sponsoring a press conference on Thursday, August 28th at noon in the Capitol Rotunda. They will be joined by concerned state residents, lawyers and formerly incarcerated people in effort to Restore Meaningful Commutation for Lifers in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania is one of only six states in the country where people serving life sentences have no possibility of achieving parole. The use of life without parole (LWOP) sentencing in the state has increased steadily over the last several decades, jumping from less than 1,000 people serving LWOP in 1980 to over 5,000 in 2012. At the same time, the use of the commutation process, which is the only administrative procedure available for lifers to show remorse and suitability for reentry, has drastically decreased. Pennsylvania now has the largest proportion of its prison population serving LWOP sentences in the country (10%).

“It is time we shine a light on the success stories of those that have had a life sentence commuted. They have not simply avoided crime, they have made a difference in their communities as priests, neighborhood center directors, Soros Fellowship recipients, and mentors. The power of mercy has instilled a purpose in these individuals to make amends and to make a difference.”  says Dr. Brian O’Neill, professor of criminal justice, who will be speaking at the press conference.

When Avis Lee was 18 she was the look-out for a robbery, which ended in the unfortunate death of the victim. Avis had no intention of killing anyone, she didn’t pull the trigger, she didn’t even see it happen, in fact, she called an ambulance to try to save the victim’s life.  However, under the Felony Murder Rule she was convicted to life and is now serving her 34th year.  On August 28th, there will be a Merit Review Hearing in which the Board of Pardons announces the names of those seeking commutation whose public hearing has been granted, the next step in the commutation process. If Avis is denied at this time, she will not have the opportunity to come before the board for another 5 years.

“Avis Lee has been incarcerated for 34 years. Avis transcribes braille, donates her time to charity, lives on the Honor Block. Imagine what she could do if she were home,” said Suzanne South of the Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee (WTPDC).

Pennsylvania currently spends over $2 billion per year on prisons. The financial cost of housing the life sentenced population in Pennsylvania will exceed $7 billion over 30 years but these numbers don’t show the true cost of sentencing people to die in prison. These numbers don’t show the costs on families of incarcerated people as they trek across the state to visit their loved ones. They don’t show the effect of the leadership of lifers in prisons across the state or how much they could contribute if they came home.

Across the country, the recidivism rate for aging and elderly prisoners who have served long sentences, such as lifers, is very low. A great majority of these prisoners do not present a risk to public safety if they are allowed to return to their communities. Of the nearly 100 lifers in Pennsylvania who were released on parole between 1933 and 2005 aged 50 and above when they were released, only one was sent back to prison for a new crime.

“We need a total overhaul of the commutation process for lifers,” said Zoe Mizuho of WTPDC. “We are advocating for a repeal of the unanimous vote requirement for lifers by the Board of Pardons, and streamlining the lengthy and arduous process of applying for commutation.”

Sponsored by Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee, Decarcerate PA, New Voices Pittsburgh, WHAT’S UP?!, Fight for Lifers West



Sen. Daylin Leach Challenges Felony Murder Rule

Pa. has 2nd-most inmates serving life without parole

BY MENSAH M. DEAN, Daily News Staff Writer, 215-568-8278
Posted: July 22, 2014  Published on

TYRONE WERTS waited in the car while his four buddies walked two blocks to a North Philadelphia speakeasy to commit a robbery on the night of May 6, 1975.

Werts, 23, didn’t know that the robbery victim had been fatally shot until his accomplices jumped back inside the car.

The District Attorney’s Office offered Werts a plea bargain of eight to 20 years in prison, but he opted for a jury trial and wound up getting convicted of second-degree murder.

That resulted in a mandatory life sentence without parole – the punishment in Pennsylvania state court for first- or second-degree murder. (Some first-degree-murder convictions also can draw death sentences.)

“I was young, ignorant of the law at that time, and I just could not reconcile in my mind how I could be guilty of murder, because I didn’t kill anybody – right?” said Werts, now 62.

“So I turned that deal down because I was under the illusion that if I went to trial, I would tell the facts of the case and I would be found guilty of less or I would be found innocent. But I was wrong.”

Werts would spend 36 years in maximum-security prison before the state Pardons Board heard his appeal and recommended that his sentence be commuted.

Then-Gov. Ed Rendell signed the order to free him and two other murder convicts on Dec. 30, 2010. Rendell cited the “ancillary roles” the men had played and the fact that some accomplices had more-significant roles but got lighter sentences.

The other two men also spent more than 35 years doing life without parole:

* William Fultz, at age 22, knowingly disposed of the murder weapon used by two of his friends to kill a man in 1974.

* Keith O. Smith, at age 19, was the lookout man during a 1974 robbery that resulted in the murder of a flower-shop owner.

The cases of Werts, Fultz and Smith give insight into why Pennsylvania has the nation’s second-largest population of inmates serving life without parole, when crime statistics show that its murder rate is lower than those in 15 other states.

A controversial issue

Given the hefty annual cost of housing inmates – about $32,000 per person – some experts believe that the state should revisit sentencing guidelines to give judges discretion when meting out punishment to those convicted of taking part in murders.

Others say that the concerns of victims’ families should take precedence over those of people who have been convicted and sentenced to die behind bars.

“I know that for my families it gives them a little bit more sense of closure when a defendant gets a life sentence and they know that’s it,” said Tracy Simmons, program director for Families of Murder Victims, a nonprofit organization that works in city courts. “They know they’re not going to get a call that they’re up for parole.”

But state Sen. Daylin Leach, minority chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he is drafting a bill that would make parole possible for some murderers.

The bill, he said, would get rid of the felony-murder rule, which holds that if a murder is committed during the commission or attempted commission of a felony, everyone involved can be convicted of murder.

“I think it is morally problematic to punish people for things that they neither intended to do and did not do,” said Leach, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Montgomery and Delaware counties.

“I’m a big fan of courts having discretion, and I am opposed to most mandatory-minimum sentences,” Leach added.

The Pennsylvania Prison Society, a nonprofit prisoner-advocacy organization, has long called for changing the law to give some long-serving lifers a second chance at freedom, said executive director Ann Schwartzman.

“You’re always going to have some that do need to remain behind bars,” she said. “But most people do deserve a second chance, and we at least want to see a process open where people can apply for a commutation or apply for parole and have that opportunity.

“Even in California, Sirhan Sirhan [Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's assassin] and Charlie Manson come up every year for parole.”

Second only to Florida

At the end of 2012, Pennsylvania was home to 5,121 inmates serving life without parole. They represented about 10 percent of the state’s prison population of about 51,100, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Florida has 7,992 inmates serving life without parole, the most of any state. Louisiana, with 4,637 inmates, is in third place, according to the Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit organization engaged in research and advocacy on criminal-justice issues.

National data indicate that there is no correlation between Pennsylvania’s high population of inmates serving life without parole and the number of murders committed in the state.

In fact, 15 states have murder rates higher than Pennsylvania’s, and all have fewer inmates serving life without parole, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based national nonprofit research group.

In 2012, Pennsylvania had the 16th-highest murder rate – 5.4 murders per 100,000 people. By comparison, Michigan had the fourth-highest – seven per 100,000 – but had only 3,635 inmates serving life without parole.

But changing Pennsylvania law to give lifers a chance at parole is not on the agenda of state Rep. Ron Marsico, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

“These prisons are there for those who commit the most heinous crimes, and releasing them without supervision or parole would be an enormous problem,” said Marsico, a Dauphin County Republican. “I’m almost certain the Legislature would not approve that.”

He said he would not mind having a study done on the issue with input from sources including Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel and members of the Board of Probation and Parole.

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said life-without-parole terms “would be appropriate for certain cases that are so egregious.”

In other cases depending on the facts, he said, judges should have sentencing options.

“The more tools we give the judges, the better chance justice will be done,” said the Republican, whose district includes parts of Montgomery and Bucks counties.

Most inmates serving life without parole in Pennsylvania are not as fortunate as Werts, Fultz and Smith, who will be on parole for the rest of their lives.

Gov. Corbett has not commuted any life sentences so far. Rendell commuted five, Mark Schweiker commuted one and Tom Ridge commuted none, according to the state Department of Corrections.

“I tell people all the time I’m a walking miracle,” said Werts, who stays busy working for the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program at Temple University and for the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

In May 2013, he won an 18-month fellowship from billionaire philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Foundations to conduct outreach programs aimed at steering ex-offenders away from returning to crime.

“Sometimes I still wake up in the morning and think, ‘I cannot believe I’m out here.’ “

The North Philly native speaks to organizations throughout the city about prison-reform issues. His work also has taken him to New York; Towson, Md., and Allentown. It’s a far cry from his life before he went to prison.

Turned off to school after an elementary-school teacher told him he was too dumb to be an astronomer, Werts dropped out of Simon Gratz High School in the 10th grade.

He amassed an arrest record for street crimes including car theft and drug dealing.

After being convicted of murder and being sent to Graterford, he started to turn things around.

He earned a GED in 1977 and a bachelor’s degree in general studies in 1992, and spent 20 years as president of a lifers group whose mission was to change the law so that its members one day could be eligible for parole.

While he was in prison, Werts’ parents and three of his eight siblings died.

Some defendants, such as “recreational killers and child-killers,” should not get paroled, but others should get consideration, he said.

In his case, he noted, the accomplice who masterminded the 1975 robbery-turned-murder received 10 years’ probation for testifying against him and the others.

“That caused me to question: Was this about the prosecutor winning – or was it about justice?”

On Twitter: @MensahDean

Prison Justice Field Trip – August 28th

Join Let’s Get Free and Decarcerate PA in Harrisburg to:

restore logo copy
​Restore Meaningful Commutation for Lifers
Currently there are over 5,000 people in PA sentenced to Life Without Parole (LWOP)- aka The Other Death Penalty. Commutation is one way that lifers can prove they are worthy of a second chance in society.
We are hoping at least 20 people from Pittsburgh will attend!
Are you in?!
Thursday August 28th -
Early in the morning til later in the evening
We will be carpooling from Pittsburgh.
There will be resources for gas and tolls!
Please fill out this online form or contact etta if you wish to go or support the rally.
We will meet with the Governor’s Office!
We will have a press conference at Noon!
We will lobby/educate the judiciary committee about the broken commutation process!
We will build relationships with each other and meet others seeking prison justice from other parts of the state!

What is commutation?
A commuted sentence is a legal sentence which has been adjusted by an official to make the sentence less severe. Classically, commuted sentences come in the form of reduced imprisonment, although commutation can also involve a reduction of fees and other penalties ordered by a judge.

What is Meaningful Commutation?
Meaningful Commutation means revitalizing this legal process of sentence reduction that already exists.  At one time, as many as 12 lifers a year had their sentence commuted. At one time, a life sentence meant 7 years.  It hasn’t always been like this. Excessive sentencing with no redemption in sight.

In order to have your life sentence commuted the applicant must be approved unanimously by the 5 member board of pardons and the governor.

Only 6 people have had their life sentences commuted in the last 15 years. Most recently, Tyrone Werts  of Philadelphia was commuted in June of 2011 after 36 years in prison.
Why August 28th?

Thursday August 28  is the Merit Review Hearing. This is one part of a 17 step process for people sentenced to LWOP to be commuted. Avis Lee’s name may or may not be called at this hearing. The hearing  will go through a list of names of people seeking commutation and the 5 members of the board of pardons will vote yes or no wether they think this person should have a public hearing. So it’s not a dialogue or discussion more like imageannouncing the ways the board voted. AND 4 of the Board are on speaker phone. Avis Lee applied for commutation 3 years ago and may be approved or denied the public hearing on this day. Avis Lee was the look out for a robbery that went terribly wrong in 1980. She was 18.  She has spent over 34 years in prison and we believe she deserves a second chance. Learn more about the case for Avis Lee Here.  This is her 5th attempt at commutation.

There are 192 women serving Life Without Parole in PA.

Since 1990  –  50 women have applied for commutation.
Only 6 were granted a hearing.
Not one received commutation.

Free Her! Rally –Pittsburghers Report By Julia Johnson

Locked Up – Who, For What and Why? Three Questions We Fail to Ask

photo credit Julia Johnson

Jul 22, 2014

Locked Up – Who, For What and Why? Three Questions We Fail to Ask

On June 21st, I stood below the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. alongside hundreds of participants in the first annual Free Her Rally. Many of us had shared experiences of wrongdoing at the hands of the criminal justice system and it was no coincidence that many of us were black women. The reason for the event can be summed up in one chilling statistic; in the past 30 years, the incarceration rate of women has increased by 800% with women of color being disproportionately represented. This is a prime example of what is wrong with our criminal justice system and it is why we stood together and rallied. We not only wanted to share our stories of how this unthinkable statistic has affected us – we were there to take action.


photo by Amanda Johnson

A large part of why I was there that day stemmed directly from a major event in my childhood. Child Protective Services took my four siblings and I from our Mother when I was five years old. I loved my mother dearly, and like most children at that age, I was attached to her at the hip. To put it lightly, being taken from her devastated me. It was explained to me that she was labeled a drug addict and deemed unfit to take care of us.I could not reconcile that statement with what I had experienced; she was a loving, single mother who did an excellent job of providing for us. She was heavily involved in our school life, was always the first to volunteer for the PTA and even stepped in as lunch lady at times. This abrupt removal from my home left me asking questions and seeking answers. I was rightfully angry from my experience with CPS, but more importantly, I now spend my days advocating for policies that do not unjustly inflict trauma and ruin the lives of others. I know there is another way to shape our criminal justice system. It can be principled, compassionate and backed by evidence of success.

My politics, and by extension my passions, are shaped by statistics and common sense. For example, nearly twenty-four million people in the United States abuse and are addicted to illegal narcotics. Medical professionals tell us they are suffering from a disease. How can we help the people struggling with this detrimental and debilitating illness? Unfortunately, many people (specifically law enforcement officials) will tell you they should be thrown in jail.

Handcuffs do not cure addictions, so why would you send someone to jail for having an illness? If our tax dollars were used to wean people off of drugs rather than the failed approach of throwing them in a cage, we can significantly reduce the supply and demand of drugs in our country. This has been the successful policy of Portugal where all drugs have been decriminalized since 2001. As a result, “the proportion of drug offenders in the Portuguese prison system fell from 44 percent in 1999 to 21 percent in 2008” and the country has drastically decreased its rates of addiction and disease transmission. There are many success stories from around the globe of alternative policies that have proven to reduce the use of narcotics. We can do the same for our country.

mothers in charge

photo of Mothers in Charge by Amanda Johnson

Another defect of our broken criminal justice system: our prisons are filled with people of color. When you look at the incarceration rates for drug possession, blacks make up “12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.

Why are blacks disproportionately represented in the rate of drug arrests? Simple: racial profiling. While the Jim Crow Era came to an end after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prejudice and racism in our society did not go away. Stereotypes of blacks as dangerous criminals and good for nothing have seeped into the mindsets of our law enforcement and judiciary officials. This has allowed for them to target people of color and give them harsher punishments. Blacks are not only arrested at higher rates, they are locked up for longer periods of time.

Understanding what racial profiling is and how prevalent it has become is key to changing our failing criminal justice system. By criminalizing drugs and targeting people of color as suspect, there are more black people in chains today than at any point of the African Slave Trade. Our country must come to terms with how racism is destroying entire communities and gutting our economic potential as we unwittingly continue the cycle of poverty.

While these two issues are harmful enough, their negative impact has been compounded and inflated by the Prison Industrial Complex and mass incarceration. The prison industry lobbies for harsher penalties for drug use and other non-violent crimes, resulting in strict mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking and possession. This is the leading cause of our prison population quadrupling since 1980. Currently, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world with 2.4 million of our citizens behind bars, the majority of which are for drug offenses, costing us between $21,000 – $33,000 per inmate. This is inhuman and simply put, not sustainable. We must implement smarter, alternative policies for the sake of our families and our communities.

pittsburgh delegation

part of the Pittsburgh Delegation

As I stood below the Washington Monument and listened to the passionate demand to end the drug war, racist policies and mass incarceration, I knew I was not alone in my anger and outrage. I made a promise to myself to convert my passion into action: to advocate for the Smarter Sentencing Act, Ban the Box initiatives, anti-racial profiling proposals, harm reduction policies, regulation of illicit drugs by health clinics and funding for rehabilitation centers. Will you do the same? As speaker Ronnel Guy, Executive Director of the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing said – “It’s movement building time!

A Living Chance : Storytelling to End Life Without Parole in California

A Living Chance is a multimedia storytelling project created in collaboration with people serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) in California’s women’s prisons. People serving LWOP describe themselves as the “lost population” of the prisoner rights movement. Their sentences are so severe, they seem impossible to reverse. The majority of people serving LWOP are survivors of childhood abuse and intimate partner violence. In most cases, evidence of their abuse was not presented at their trials. Through visual storytelling, A Living Chance will humanize the LWOP population and make visible the struggles and resiliency of these people who are, essentially, sentenced to die in prison.

Through audio recordings, interviews, letters, and photographs we will document and archive the stories of people sentenced to LWOP. These stories will be compiled into a website and publication to be used for public education, broader campaign work against LWOP, and to support individual cases. This project emerges from the current organizing inside prison—specifically the work of incarcerated members of California Coalition for Women Prisoners, a grassroots social justice organization with members inside and outside of prison.

By carrying the voices of this lost population beyond the prison walls, A Living Chance has the potential to affect cultural and legislative change, thus giving those sentenced to LWOP in California a living chance at freedom.

Go to the donation page here: A Living Chance donation page

March with us at Pittsburgh Pride

Members of Let’s Get Free will march with New Voices Pittsburgh – This Sunday! Meetings at 11am at Boulevard of the Allies and Grant. New Voices says – Are you ready to show your #BlackPride?!

Boulevard of the Allies and Cherry Street – click here for a map and directions.
Let any of the Pride Staff know you are with New Voices Pittsburgh when you arrive and they will direct you to our specific position for the March.
If you have any issue, call or text 412.450.0290.

Calling all Black #LGBTQ & allies to walk with @NewVoicesPgh in the Pride March, 6/15,  Text 412.450.0290 to walk. #NVP #ReproJustice After the march we will engage and tell the story of our two proud sisters behind bars! Free Avis! Free Charmaine!




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