A group of 29 rabbis and Jewish leaders sent Attorney General Josh Shapiro an open letter on Sept. 1 urging him to commute multiple life without parole sentences — the letter refers to them as “death by incarceration” — in an appeal to forgiveness and faith.
“Deciding who will die in prison is a moral question that calls on our deepest ethical and spiritual obligations to one another and to the world,” the letter reads. “In Jewish tradition, the gates of teshuva, repair and return, are always open. The people who come before the Board of Pardons have made teshuva. They deserve a second chance.”
The letter came just as the board was about to meet for four days of hearings.
In response, Shapiro issued a statement of his own.
“I share the sentiment and have supported more commutations than all other Attorneys General in the past 25 years combined. It is not lost on me that because of the unanimous nature of this process, each of us on the Board has people’s lives in our hands and that is why I take this process seriously and am deliberative about each individual case. My faith guides me to have mercy and my job instructs me to protect — both of those things weigh heavily while making these difficult decisions. At the end of the day, I do what I think is right.”
The Board of Pardons’ five members include Shapiro; Lt. Gov. John Fetterman; Harris Gubernick, who is described as a “corrections expert”; psychiatrist John P. Williams; and victim representative Marsha H. Grayson. The board must vote unanimously to recommend commutation to the governor, who makes a final decision.
The board met Sept. 1-4, recommending to commute eight of 22 life sentences. Shapiro also voted to commute two sentences that were rejected by the full board.
Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, who is the executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, said many of the 5,000 people serving life without parole sentences are unlikely to commit further crimes, in part because of their age, but also because they’ve been model prisoners who have worked to educate themselves or help others while incarcerated.
“The issue is the justice, fairness, health and the safety of all people,” she said.
Wechterman, who is a volunteer chaplain at SCI Phoenix prison in Collegeville, said the prisoners she has worked with want to be members of society — and appear ready to do so.
“We ask that you vote yes on all commutations that come before you unless there is a credible, serious, and likely threat to public safety caused by that person’s release,” the letter reads.
Prior to the September hearings, the board had heard 56 requests to commute life sentences since Gov. Tom Wolf’s tenure began in 2015, according to the board website. It had recommended commutation 23 times, 19 of which Wolf granted.
During predecessor Tom Corbett’s 2011-’14 tenure, the board heard only two requests, denying both. And when Ed Rendell was governor from 2003 through 2010, there were 11 cases heard; the board recommended commutation five times, all of which Rendell granted.
The number of commutation cases heard by the board has declined significantly in the 21st century. Under Gov. Milton Shapp, there were 733 cases heard between 1971-’78. Gov. Richard Thornburgh’s board heard 375 cases from 1979-’86 and Gov. Bob Casey Sr.’s board heard 249 cases between 1987-’94.
[email protected]; 215-832-0797