I believe in the power of a second chance
I’ve fought hard for second chances for Pennsylvanians, and one of my proudest accomplishments has been delivering them
One of the things I believe in most strongly is the power of a second chance. I believe that one bad decision should not define a person. In my years in public service, I have advocated for reforms to our unforgiving and vindictive legal system. I have fought hard for second chances for Pennsylvanians — and one of my proudest accomplishments has been delivering them.
In America, we’ve unfortunately got the punishment part down pat. But we should not be a society about vengeance, we should be a society about redemption. What we need to do is fundamentally shift the justice system by bringing redemption to the forefront and making sure that second chances are possible in this country.
When I became Lieutenant Governor in 2018, I also became the Chair of the Board of Pardons here in Pennsylvania. I saw firsthand just how random, arbitrary, and punitive the system actually was. The closer you are to the system, the more injustices you see. So I immediately got to work to do what I could to make the system more just.
In the two years since taking office, I’ve worked to completely reinvent our broken pardon and commutation process in Pennsylvania. I worked to eliminate application fees which led to an about 500% increase in pardon applications. I established an expedited cannabis-related pardon program to speed up the pardon process for those with nonviolent cannabis-related convictions — which, frankly, shouldn’t even be considered crimes to begin with. I also commissioned a report by the Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity that clearly spelled out the need to abolish Pennsylvania's horrible and immoral practice of sentencing people to mandatory life-without-parole for second-degree “felony” murder convictions.
Back when I was Mayor of Braddock, I heard the story of Corry Sanders, a father of four who owns a barbershop in McKeesport. In 2015, Corry was elected to serve on the McKeesport City Council but was barred from serving because of a 1993 drug charge.
It was absurd. This was a man who served time and did everything right after his release. He started a business, he started a family but was still held back by something from nearly 25 years prior. There is no clearer evidence that our system is not built to allow for redemption.
Before I was elected Lieutenant Governor, I called on the Governor to pardon Corry. Unfortunately, Corry’s application did not make it successfully from the Board to the Governor’s desk under my predecessor. When I became Lieutenant Governor, I saw to it that Corry’s application got to the Governor’s desk and was approved.
I’ve also had the opportunity to support second chances for more deserving lifers — Pennsylvanians serving life sentences without the possibility of parole — than in the previous 25 years combined. This means fewer people in our prison system and more families and communities reunited.
I also worked to ensure that Reid and Wyatt Evans, who served 37 years in prison, were granted clemency and allowed to return home to their families and communities. The Evans brothers went to prison for a robbery that went south when the victim, Leonard Leichter, suffered a heart attack. Despite never having intentionally taken a life, these men were sentenced to die in prison. I knew in my heart that it was wrong. Through tireless efforts from advocacy groups and even Nancy Leichter, the daughter of the victim, advocating for their release, we were successful in our fight for freedom for the Evans Brothers. Wyatt and Reid were finally released earlier this year.
One of my favorite stories of second chances is that of Dennis and Lee Horton, who were charged with murder in 1994 after one of their friends robbed a bar and shot and killed someone in the process. Dennis and Lee were implicated by guilt through association. They were offered a plea that would have meant a prison sentence of under 10 years, but they rejected it because they knew they did not commit the crime. So they took their chances at trial and were convicted of second-degree murder. And in Pennsylvania, that’s an automatic sentence of life without parole — death by incarceration. The superintendent of their prison even came to the hearing and begged the Board to grant them clemency.
And I took every exertion possible to make sure that Lee and Dennis got a chance to get their lives back and be reunited with their family. I cannot imagine the trauma, the horror, and the heartbreak, to have grown up with your father in prison for a crime that he didn’t commit. I cannot imagine how it feels to watch your sons spend 27 years locked up for something they didn’t do. Or, to be unjustly separated by prison walls from your twin — as was the case for Dennis — for all those years.
Like the Evans brothers, Dennis and Lee were released from prison earlier this year. I keep their photo as the background on my phone as a reminder of how important this work is.
I’ve also always felt that these individuals who have seen the legal system firsthand and know it better than anyone should have a voice in the fight to make our system one that more closely resembles justice. In my office, I made a point to hire formerly incarcerated individuals who have a unique perspective and knowledge of the system to help with the pardon and commutation process.
Back in 2019, I led a push to appoint Brandon Flood to be the Secretary of the Board of Pardons. Brandon had also recently earned a pardon for past convictions from the very Board he now helps lead. I also hired two former “Lifers,” George Trudel and Naomi Blount Wilson, who had recently received clemency of their life sentences, to work in my office and help people apply for commutation and work their way through the process.
And earlier this month, the Horton brothers — now just months out of prison — joined me in my campaign for U.S. Senate. Dennis and Lee are working as field organizers talking to Pennsylvanians across the state about the campaign and the work we’re going to do together when I’m elected.
I strongly feel that the people who know the issues and have lived experience with our legal system best are most equipped to help reform it.
I feel so lucky to have come to know the Horton Brothers and to be able to have them as vital members of my campaign team.
I feel so lucky to have successfully advocated for the Evans brothers and to be able to watch them continue their life after nearly 40 years behind bars.
I feel so lucky to have come to know Corry and to see him serving his community on the City Council.
Stories like these are exactly why I do the work that I do, why I chose to first run for office back in 2005, why I ran for Lt. Governor, and why I am running now for the U.S. Senate. There is nothing finer that I could do in my public life than to make sure our community members like Dennis, Lee, Wyatt, Reid, and Corry get a second chance.