Human-rights groups plan to hold rallies in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia Tuesday to protest state Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s record on commutation. While Pennsylvania's Board of Pardons recommended more commutations last year than at any time in the past quarter-century, rally organizers say Shapiro, one of the board’s five members, stands in the way of granting the relief more widely.
Commutation, which shortens a prisoner’s time behind bars, is the only hope of release for those serving life terms without the possibility of parole. It requires a unanimous board vote and the governor’s approval.
Since becoming chair of the board of pardons last year, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has pushed the board to consider commutation in more cases. Shapiro, however, has been the least likely to approve the relief, with corrections expert and fellow board member Harris Gubernick a very close second.
Shandre Delaney, director of the Human Rights Coalition’s Pittsburgh chapter, remembered attending a commutation hearing in December, where Shapiro voted to shorten only three of fifteen sentences.
“And from that day, we decided we were going to stand up and say something on behalf of all of these people who we feel need to be given a second chance,” Delaney said. “We want him to show some mercy and really give the thought that people need redemption. People change.”
Delaney plans to speak at the Pittsburgh rally, whose organizers include the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration - Western Pennsylvania, Amistad Law Project, and the Abolitionist Law Center.
A spokesperson for Shapiro noted the attorney general has still supported more commutations than all of his predecessors over the past 25 years, combined.
“AG Shapiro’s record is clear,” Jacklin Rhoads wrote in a statement, “he is a firm believer in second chances.”
Rhoads noted that Shapiro must weigh several, sometimes competing, factors when considering commutation. For example, she said, he must consider the wishes of victims and their family members, the risk that commutation applicants will re-offend if released, and injustices that may have occurred in an applicant’s case.
Regardless, the spokesperson said the attorney supports efforts by the pardons board to simplify the commutation process and to hear more cases. And, she continued, he favors allowing commutation based on a simple majority, rather than a unanimous board vote.
That rule change would require an amendment to the state constitution and would not take effect for at least two years: Lawmakers must approve proposed changes to the constitution in two consecutive legislative sessions before voters ratify them at the ballot box.
For now, Delaney said she and other activists are urging Shapiro to use his seat on the pardons board to advance more commutations.
Tuesday’s rallies are set to begin at 12:30 p.m. outside the attorney general’s offices in Philadelphia and on the periphery of Downtown Pittsburgh. They will feature speeches by formerly incarcerated people and those with family members in prison.