Speaker McClinton and criminal justice advocates looking to change PA’s pardon process

House Speaker Joanna McClinton speaking before the PA House Judiciary Committee on Oct. 30, 2023. (Photo: Sean Kitchen)

By Sean Kitchen

October 30, 2023

PA House Speaker Joanna McClinton spoke before the House Judiciary Committee in favor of a constitutional amendment that will change the commonwealth’s pardon and commutation process. The amendment will make it easier for those serving life sentences to go through the application process.

Criminal justice advocates testified in favor of a constitutional amendment at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg on Monday to reset the pardon and commutation application process to the original standard, making it easier for those charged with lifetime sentences.

Pennsylvania House Speaker Joanna McClinton introduced House Bill 1410 and spoke in favor of the constitutional amendment in front of the House Judiciary Committee.

Prior to the crackdown on crime that occurred in the 1990s, those charged with murder and serving a life sentence were able to obtain a recommendation for a pardon or commutation from the Board of Pardons by a three-fifths majority. If granted, the recommendation moved to the governor to decide if the applicant met the criteria for a pardon or a commuted sentence.

Pennsylvania has the second-most people in the world serving life sentences of 50 or more years at 8,242 people. Over two-thirds of them will never leave prison, according to the Sentencing Project.

HB 1410 seeks to alleviate those numbers and return the pardon and commutation application process to its historical three-fifths standard for all criminal cases except for the impeachment of a governor.

McClinton, who served as a public defender, said her bill will “create great opportunities for incarcerated Pennsylvanians to receive a pardon or have their sentences commuted, offering compassion, saving taxpayer resources and helping us to continue to reform the criminal justice system.”

The Speaker told the committee her legislation especially benefits those who were convicted of a murder they did not intend to commit or were not directly involved in.

“The return to the historic standard would be especially just for people serving sentences for felony murder where the incarcerated person did not intend nor directly kill anyone. This legislation marks the beginning of an intentionally lengthy and thoughtful constitutional amendment process,” McClinton told the committee.

A constitutional amendment has to pass the House and Senate chambers in consecutive legislative sessions in order to be placed on the ballot.

Nancy Leichter addressed the committee virtually and explained how her father, Leonard Leichter, died of a heart attack following a car robbery in 1980. His car was robbed by brothers Reid and Wyatt Evans, who were 18 and 19 at the time of the incident.

Even though the Evans brothers sought help for Leichter after making his medical condition known, the two brothers were convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole. Leichter’s family supported the decision at first, but over the years their feelings toward the brothers changed.

“As the years went by, my views of their sentences changed significantly,” Leichter told the committee.

“They were 18 and 19 years old at the time with the brains of teenagers not fully developed. They were reckless and they were stupid. Thinking about myself as a teenager, I was reckless and stupid myself. I didn’t cause anybody’s death but if I had done something like they did, I don’t believe that I would have received the same sentence that they received,” she continued.

The brothers were granted clemency and released from prison in April 2021 after the Board of Pardons voted 4-0 in their favor.

“I strongly support changing the Board of Pardons vote from unanimous approval to three-fifths because I know the case of the Evans brothers is not rare or unusual. There are many more people deserving of second chances,” Leichter said in her closing remarks.

Author

  • Sean Kitchen

    Sean Kitchen is the Keystone’s political correspondent, based in Harrisburg. Sean is originally from Philadelphia and spent five years working as a writer and researcher for Pennsylvania Spotlight.

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