The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons voted on Thursday, August 28, not to grant Avis Lee, who has been imprisoned since she was a teenager, a chance to reduce her sentence of life without parole through the commutation process. Friends and supporters of Lee filed out of the hearing room in the East Wing of the Capital Building in Harrisburg with looks of disbelief.
“It’s a travesty,” said Tyrone Werts, Philadelphia resident and former inmate who was commuted by Governor Rendell and released in 2011 after 36 years serving life without parole. He had expected the Board to at least grant Lee a public hearing.
Etta Cetera, Lee’s friend for the last 10 years and co-founder of Let’s Get Free, had tears in her eyes.
Meanwhile, in the rotunda of the Capital Building, protesters and advocacy groups from across the state gathered to make the case that commutations are an important release valve for getting people out prison — and off the state’s dole — so they can once again contribute to society. Philadelphia-based Decarcerate PA and members of the Philly chapter of the Human Rights Campaign were in attendance.
Commutation is the process of reducing the severity of a legal sentence. It can change a death sentence to life without parole, reduce the length of a prison sentence, or simply lower the amount of a fine. Commutation differs from a pardon in that it does not eliminate a sentence from a person’s record. Pardons are not typically used for serious crimes such as second degree murder.
For the over 5,000 people serving life in Pennsylvania, commutation is often their only hope for walking freely again. Prisoners serving life sentences are not eligible for parole in Pennsylvania.
Yet in the last two decades the number commutations has fallen drastically. There have been only six in the last 19 years, and none of them were women. That’s less than a quarter of the commutations granted during Governor Robert Casey’s administration (1987-1994), and far less than the 251 granted by Governor Milton Shapp through the 1970s.
Governor Corbett has granted zero since taking office in 2011.
“There is a process in place — in place — but it is underutilized,” said Cetera during the rally. “So we want to restore this process, to make it meaningful, useful.”
Politics and commutation
Commutation became a heated issue in the 1995 gubernatorial race between Tom Ridge and then-Lt. Gov. Mark Singel after a commuted prisoner, Reginald McFaddin, killed at least three more people in New York just months after his release.
Singel, the chair of the Board of Pardons at the time, is generally thought to have the lost the race due to his involvement in the commutation.
The collective rage that ensued was quickly followed by the state legislature proposing an amendment to the Pennsylvania constitution that required the “unanimous recommendation,” of the Board of Pardons for the commutation of a sentence of death or life imprisonment — a majority vote would no longer suffice. The amendment was approved by voters in 1997.
The unanimity requirement had an immediate impact. Just four applicants were recommended to Governor Tom Ridge between 1995 to 2001, and none were granted, according to Board of Pardons statistics. Over 100 applicants were recommended to Governor Casey, the previous governor.
Werts, who grew up at 25th and Allegheny in Philadelphia, watched these changes from behind bars. He recalled that commutation was considered a real possibility when he first entered prison in 1975. This changed after the amendment, at which time Werts had resigned himself to the fact that he would die in prison.
“I never expected to make commutation,” said Werts “It’s not a process that is fair — it’s arbitrary, capricious, political.”
Indeed, Board of Pardons members rarely elaborate on their decisions, leaving prisoners and their advocates in the dark. The office of Attorney General Kathleen Kane declined to comment on her reasons for voting no in the case of Avis Lee. No other members responded by the time this article was published.
Where does the Corbett Administration stand on this issue? A delegation of advocates had a chance to meet with administration officials and ask this question prior to the rally last Thursday.
“I don’t think there was much of a substantive response, other than we will run these by the governor,” said Bret Grote, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, a public interest law firm that focuses on prisoners’ rights.
Grote also said that an aide to Corbett made it clear that the unanimity requirement was the will of the people and unlikely to change soon.
Accessing their stories
One of the barriers to meaningful commutation is the lack of access to prisoners, according to Ellen Melchiondo, activist and Bucks County resident.
Melchiondo is an official visitor for the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which gives her access to prisoners. She has used this privilege to develop relationships with female prisoners across the state and has learned the ins and outs of the state prison system.
“They don’t make it easy to get [prisoners'] stories out there,” said Melchiondo. “You can’t film an inmate, you can’t legally record an inmate.” There are also obstacles to visitations, she added.
Avis Lee is the exception rather than the rule. Her supporters have used her story to put a human face on the issue of commutation. (Avis was the look-out for a robbery that went awry, and was just 18 at the time of her arrest. She had also lost her mother recently and was living without parental guidance in a poor part of Pittsburgh).
Most of the prison population, however, languishes in obscurity.
“Lock them away, forget about them, that’s the way our society is set up,” Melchiondo said.
Last week’s rally is the latest effort to shift the dialogue around commutation. It was also a sign of growing solidarity between advocacy groups such as Decarcerate PA, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee.
Decarcerate PA, which has focused on stopping new prison construction and ending laws like minimum sentencing, plans on making commutation more of a core issue.
It’s becoming “more on our radar,” said Ashley Henderson of Decarcerate PA.
As for Avis, she plans on sending in another application for commutation as soon as possible, according to Cetera.