Monday, November 21, 2011

Pennsylvania Commutes Few Life Sentences

The Lancaster New Era has explored the growing number of geriatric inmates serving life sentences in Pennsylvania. Nearly 4,800 men and women currently are serving life sentences in state prisons. The most recent figures available — from a 2005 state government report — show that the number of elderly lifers in Pennsylvania grew 35 percent from 2001 to 2004, when it reached 1,077.

The governor and Board of Pardons commute few life sentences. The New Era wrote, the state Board of Pardons considers inmates' applications for commutation, or reduction of a sentence currently being served.

Commutation of life sentences once was common. In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of applications were heard and commutations granted. But both have dropped sharply in recent years.

A 1997 state constitutional amendment changed the pardon board's makeup. It now includes the lieutenant governor, attorney general and three appointees: a crime victim, corrections expert, and physician, psychiatrist or psychologist.

The amendment also requires a unanimous vote — as opposed to the previous majority — to recommend commutation of a death or life sentence.

The push for the amendment was fueled in part by the case of Reginald McFadden, who had served 26 years of his life sentence in 1994, when Governor Robert Casey granted a commutation recommended by the board, 4-1.

Three months after his release, McFadden was arrested for rape and two killings in New York.

The New Era found that since 1995, the board has heard 28 applications for commutation of a life sentence. Governors granted six of the 10 recommended commutations.

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