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Making the case for commutations

Pa.'s Board of Pardons vs. Lt. Gov. Fetterman

  • Joseph Darius Jaafari
The Supreme Court Room at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.

 Courtesy of

The Supreme Court Room at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.

Good morning and good Monday, Context readers. So, it’s official. We hit our $15,000 NewsMatch milestone. We actually surpassed it and we’re closer than ever to our $20,000 goal. For those who may have missed last week’s posts, I offered up my body in exchange for your donations. So, next Wednesday — as promised — I will be submerged in the Susquehanna River for the New Year’s Day Penguin Plunge, which benefits the Humane Society of Harrisburg. Feel free to come and point fun at me; I’ll be giving out free hugs after the plunge. We’re less than $4,000 away from our year end goal, where every dollar is matched three times (that’s a potential $16,000 to support our newsroom). You can donate here. — Joseph Darius Jaafari, staff writer
PA Capitol Supreme Court Room

Courtesy of

The Supreme Court Room at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg. The state Board of Pardons often holds public hearings in this space. (Courtesty

Only two of 15 prisoners serving life sentences were granted commutations during Friday’s Board of Pardons meeting.

Most interesting was the board’s denial of Jose Nieves’s request. Nieves killed John Herr, a gas station worker, in 1976. Nieves was 19 years old at the time. Herr was a father to two children. Nieves was charged and found guilty of murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. The only way a person like Nieves could ever get free is if he’s granted a commutation of his sentence. With the board’s decision last week, it’s unlikely he’ll ever see freedom.

The Board of Pardons, up until Friday, granted commutations in almost half of the 31 life sentence cases it’s heard this year. But Friday’s denials for nearly every application prompted mixed reactions. Progressive prison reformers say that life without parole imposed on someone so young, like Nieves, is cruel and harsh, while law-and-order types say Nieves and criminals like him deserve to stay in prison untill they die.

The reality is much more complicated.

For prison reformers, it’s not easy to convince corrections officials to take a chance on paroling violent offenders. The state parole board experienced a massive lashing after five parolees were charged with six homicides after their release. Rightfully, officials are trying to keep that from happening again.

But for tough-on-crime folks who believe people who commit murder at very young ages should be locked up for life, it’s hard to square that with research showing human brains don’t fully develop until most people reach the age of 25, and that most youth offenders don’t commit as many crimes after they pass that age. And it’s also good policy to release an elderly population that costs state prisons more than $2.9 million every month in health care costs, argued the Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board.

In response to few commutations approved on Friday, the board chairman, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, laid into the board on Twitter.

“Many of these inmates – now all but assured to die in prison – had the literal Warden of the SCI facility PLEADING for these commutation,” he wrote. “Today was truly one of the most dismaying days of my life.”

What are your thoughts on life without parole? Can people be redeemed for their crimes? Tell us in our Listening Post.

Best of the rest

Berks County Residential Center. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

  • Six months in detention: Berks County Residential Center, which houses immigrants seeking asylum, is housing a six-year-old girl named Maddie for close to six months. That’s about eight times longer than children are typically held, which the facility says is less than 20 days. On Friday, Sen. Bob Casey called for the release of the child, who was only named as “Maddie.”

  • No change is good change: Allegheny County and the city of Pittsburgh could experience a turnaround in its shrinking population trend that goes back to the 1960s. Initial estimates done through the Census Bureau’s American Community Surveys show that the upcoming 2020 census might show the city and county populations to be static. As the Post-Gazette puts it, “a stable count would be reason for a party.” Sounds fun.

  • Legal challenges to “ghost guns”: As expected, gun rights groups sued Attorney General Josh Shapiro for his effort to treat 80-percent receivers — the skeleton material to create a “ghost gun” — as regular guns, meaning purchasers would be subject to  background checks and convicted felons would be barred from buying them. Shapiro welcomed the court challenge, tweeting, “Bring It! We’ll see you in court.” For more information on this, check out my chat last week with Ed Mahon, our reporter whose been covering this issue. And here’s Reading Eagle editorial defending Shapiro’s actions.

  • Getting high on their own supply: If you’re looking to purchase some good vibes and bespoke CBD [insert product type here], stick around Lancaster County. The state’s top five hemp growers bordered the county, according to Lancaster Online. Out of the 323 permits issued by the state to grow hemp legally — for the first time since 1937– Lancaster county growers received 55.

  • Kiss me under the Penn. Mistletoe: Pennsylvania is home to two types of mistletoe: Oak and eastern dwarf. Two things I learned today: mistletoe is a parasitic plant (meaning it feeds off the trees they live on), but they’re actually hemiparasites,, meaning they do some of their own photosynthesis. The Oak tree mistletoe is the species most associated with Christmas-time and smooches. In totally unrelated news, you might catch me sawing down Oak tree branches this week and hauling them back to my apartment in Uptown Harrisburg for absolutely no reason at all.

  • Operation: Capitol Christmas: Two Pa. legislators documented themselves moving two pianos into the capitol’s rotunda on Friday night to perform the Christmas song, “O, Holy Night.” Rep. Andrew Lewis posted a video on Facebook showing him and David Rowe wheeling the pianos in, with Lewis saying, “We’ve cleared this with absolutely nobody.” I mean, I gotta’ give them props for putting together some quality Instagrammable content, except for the fact that he starts off by calling the capitol rotunda “pretty sweet.” Ugh, OK, Garth. Also, I’m genuinely curious as to why the capitol has not one but two pianos?

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