Lifers should get a chance at parole, protesters say

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A scroll-like list of women’s names cascaded down the Capitol steps Thursday afternoon.

They’re all serving life without parole in Pennsylvania prisons and that likely means they’ll die behind bars.

Since 1990, no woman’s sentence has been commuted in the commonwealth.

Since 1995, only six men have been released.

Tyrone Werts is one of them.

“I consider myself so blessed and so lucky,” said Werts, who served 36 1/2 years in Graterford before his commutation in 2012. “I’m telling you there are a thousand men that deserve this opportunity more than me.”

Werts was part of an hour-long demonstration by several groups calling for the restoration of meaningful commutation for lifers in Pennsylvania prisons.

Ten percent of the state’s prison population is serving life without parole, that’s tops in the nation. Critics argue that many are elderly and not likely to re-offend.

“The leading factor in predicting whether or not an individual will engage or re-engage in criminal or violent activity is age,” said Bret Grote with the Abolitionist Law Center. “People age out of crime.”

The state does have a Board of Pardons and there is a process by which some prisoners are supposed to achieve commutation. In reality, it’s all but dried up.

There are five members on the Board of Pardons and they include the attorney general and lieutenant governor. Rules were changed requiring that all five must unanimously agree to release a lifer. A 5-0 vote is almost impossible to achieve.

That’s not always been the case. The numbers tell an interesting story.

Under Governor Milton Shapp (1971-78), 733 commutation requests were heard by the Board of Pardons, 267 were recommended to the governor and 251 were granted by Shapp.

Under Dick Thornburgh (1979-86), the numbers were 375-75-7.

Under Robert Casey (1987-94), the numbers were 249-11-27.

But at the end of Casey’s term, a parolee (approved for release by then-Lt. Gov. Mark Singel) murdered again. It killed Singel’s chances at becoming governor.

Tom Ridge won the election and the entire concept of commuting lifers seized to a halt.

Under Ridge (1995-2001), the Board of Pardons heard only 15 cases and recommended that just four prisoners be released. Ridge, who had won on the issue, granted zero commutations.

Under Mark Schweiker (2001-2002), just two cases were heard, one was recommended and Schweiker signed off on it.

Under Ed Rendell (2003-2010), the numbers were 11-5-5.

The chilling effect continues under Tom Corbett (2011-present). Only one case has come before the Board of Pardons and it wasn’t recommended for commutation.

Critics say skittish politicians of both parties on the Board of Pardons find it easier to do the safe thing and just say no.

“The consensus is that they (prisoners) have to die in prison because we fear political backlash from our opponents in the next election,” Grote said.

There are many, though, who believe life should be life and if a person did the crime they should be prepared to do the time.

“If they received life without parole as a sentence from a judge, they should do life without parole,” said Representative Mike Regan (R-Cumberland).

Regan, a former federal marshal, says he’s more concerned about the families of the victims and how they’d feel about released prisoners.

He also wonders how one knows those lifers have been rehabilitated.

“There’s always the risk that they’re gonna commit another crime, and who’s gonna be responsible for that?” he said.

But the former lifer who hit the lottery and got released sees it a bit differently.

“People need to be held accountable for the things that they do,” Werts said. “But when is enough enough?”


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