HARRISBURG - Three criminal legal reform advocacy groups sent a letter today urging Governor Wolf to take all executive actions within his legal authority to release as many people from Pennsylvania’s state prisons as possible, as part of the commonwealth’s response to limiting the spread of the coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease. The letter, which was signed by the Abolitionist Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, and Amistad Law Project, outlines numerous mechanisms available to the governor to free people who are incarcerated in the state system, including compassionate release for the elderly and people with serious health complications, presumed parole for people who have served their minimum sentence, and expedited hearings by the state Board of Pardons for people who are incarcerated and who have applied for commutations.
The letter was sent to Governor Wolf and copied to Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who chairs the Board of Pardons; Theodore Johnson, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Parole Board; and John Wetzel, secretary of the Department of Corrections.
“People in Pennsylvania’s prisons are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus because so many people are housed so close together,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “We know that people who are elderly and those who have health complications are the most susceptible. If the governor and other state officials don’t move quickly to get people out of prison, this pandemic could turn into a catastrophe inside prison walls.”
The advocacy groups recommended paroling all people who have served their minimum sentence and who have been misconduct free, who have demonstrated rehabilitation, or who have been determined to be low risk. In their letter, the organizations’ also suggested waiving hearings for anyone who meets that criteria.
“We urgently need to reduce the prison population so we can stop the virus from becoming widespread among large, clustered populations of people,” said Kris Henderson, executive director of Amistad Law Project, “Not only does COVID-19 pose a threat to incarcerated people and staff in Pennsylvania’s prisons, but, if the prisons become local epicenters of infection, they will endanger the local communities to which they are connected.”
Along with the parole recommendations, the groups also asked Fetterman to convene an emergency session of the Board of Pardons to conduct merit review on the cases before them with an emphasis on cases of people who are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the virus and to immediately conduct public hearings to recommend as many people for commutation as possible.
“There are only four ventilators in the entire Department of Corrections, all of which are at SCI-Laurel Highlands,” said Robert Saleem Holbrook, director of community organizing for Abolitionist Law Center. “By taking steps to quickly and safely reduce the prison population, the governor and other decision makers may show leadership that averts a human rights catastrophe. The time for bold and humane leadership is now.”
A copy of the letter is available at this link.