Bipartisan Proposal Would Make Pennsylvania Pardon Recommendations Easier

A bill is re-emerging in Pennsylvania’s new State Senate session to end the requirement that pardon and commutation recommendations from the State Board of Pardons be unanimous. 

The five-member board comprises the lieutenant governor and the state attorney general as well as experts on corrections, victims’ rights, and mental health. Once the panel issues a recommendation for an inmate to receive a pardon or a commuted sentence, the governor reviews those determinations and decides whether to sign off on them. Historically, governors have tended to follow the board’s advice. 

Since 1995, during which legislators convened a special session on crime, state law has stipulated that recommendations by the board need the support of all five members to get sent to the governor. Previously, such determinations required simple majority votes. 

The proposed reform would change the threshold for a pardon or commutation recommendation to four-fifths. While urging fellow senators to consider their bill, principal sponsors State Senators Camera Bartolotta (R-Waynesburg) and Art Haywood (D-Philadelphia) lamented that “emotions of anger and fear that prevailed at the time” that the unanimity requirement was enacted. 

“After the Board of Pardons recommended the release of one particular offender, that offender committed outrageous offenses, and a “tough on crime” response followed,” Bartolotta and Haywood wrote in a joint statement asking colleagues to cosponsor their legislation. “Members of both parties expressed concerns, however, about requiring a unanimous vote in cases involving offenders serving life sentences.”

The senators said that, in practice, the unanimity rule has served as a barrier to the release of some elderly and physically weak inmates who are no longer a danger to society but who nonetheless require much taxpayer money to keep behind bars. Bartolotta and Haywood also said they wanted to open the possibility of a pardon for some “felony murder” convicts who did not themselves cause a victim’s death but were found guilty of facilitating crimes that resulted in another individual taking someone’s life. 

Bartolotta introduced the same measure last session. She was one of two Republicans among the bill’s nine sponsors, the other six being Democrats from the state’s southeast. The Senate Judiciary Committee failed to take a vote on her legislation. 

She and Haywood asserted that the Keystone State’s experiences over the last three decades vindicate concerns some policymakers had at the time about the new vote thresholds impact. They cited the expanding number of state prisons and a growing backlog in pardon applications. 

“The unanimous vote requirement has been an expensive investment leading to very little return for public safety,” the senators insisted in their memo. “Please join us in cosponsoring this commonsense change to allow aging prisoners to be considered for a commutation and be released under supervision.”

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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Background Photo “Pennsylvania Capitol” by Dough4872. CC BY-SA 4.0.



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