The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons is so important

I wanted to take a few minutes to explain exactly why

John Fetterman
4 min readAug 5, 2021
Philadelphia Inquirer, “Increased funding for Board of Pardons is key amid calls for police reform | Opinion” 07/06/2020

For a lot of people, most of their exposure to politics and politicians involves events on the campaign trail, interviews on cable news, or seeing a viral tweet here or there. But day to day, there’s so much more than anyone sees. For me specifically, that includes my role on the PA Board of Pardons, which is up there with some of the most important work I’ve ever done. I’d love to tell you a little bit about it.

In PA, the Lieutenant Governor serves as the Chair of the Board of Pardons. That means that I sit as the head of our five-person board, where we hear testimony and process applications for pardons and sentence commutation.

Our Board of Pardons has a rich history of providing Second Chances to people. But in the 1980s the number of commutations for life sentences plummeted and, in 1997, the application process was tightened and a unanimous decision requirement was introduced in order to provide a second chance to deserving people serving a life sentence.

We can’t let ourselves stop believing in Second Chances for everyone. That’s why my role on the Board of Pardons is so important to me.

I’m proud that, in my first year as Lieutenant Governor, we recommended commutation for 19 people serving life without parole sentences and sent them to the Governor’s desk to sign — the most since the early 90s. In total, the Board has recommended 36 commutations of life without parole sentences during my time as Lieutenant Governor.

We’ve provided pardons for those sentenced under Pennsylvania’s outdated weed laws, which let a doctor growing medicine for his sick wife go to jail because of a plant. And we’ve provided clemency for people unjustly sentenced to die in prison, such as Lee and Dennis Horton. Lee and Dennis became respected mentors and leaders in their prison communities — they’re shining examples of what Second Chances can look like, and I’m proud to know them and have them on my team.

Providing Second Chances does not mean letting people get away with crimes. Those provided clemency are proven to lead by example since their incarceration, and each and every one provides both a thorough application and personal testimony to the entire Board.

What providing Second Chances *does* mean is reimagining the purpose of our Criminal Justice system. For the majority of my life, our nation’s approach to crime and Criminal Justice has meant focusing on punishment, not rehabilitation. In our fight against violent crime, we cast such a wide net that we ruined the lives of countless people with punishments that did not fit their crime.

And while I’m proud of the progress we’ve made on the Board in providing Second Chances to those who deserve them, our work only begins to correct a previous wrong. We can do even more to fix a system that too often invests in punishment.

Firstly, we can revise Pennsylvania’s Second Degree Murder statute. There’s no reason our laws should mandate a life without parole sentence on a “felony murder” charge when that person never took a life. We’ve provided clemency for those incarcerated under our arcane Second Degree Murder statute, which allows for life sentences for people who may have driven a getaway car, but weren’t even in the building when a trigger was pulled. My office even commissioned an objective report into our Second Degree Murder statute, which found that our one-size-fits-all statute has resulted in over 1,000 people sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in jail, despite never taking a life, costing the state billions in taxpayer funds.

Secondly, we need Legal Weed for PA. In South Dakota, one of our most conservative states, you can grow up to 3 plants in your home, legally — but here in PA, doing the same could get you years in prison and a felony conviction. Full legalization is common sense; it would help relieve the strain on our overburdened legal system, provide revenue that can be invested into communities most harmed by prohibition, and would allow people increased access to much-needed medicine.

And finally, we can tweak the way our Board of Pardons works. Before 1997, the Board required a 3–2 majority to support a life sentence commutation. Now, it requires a 5–0 unanimous decision, and many people who are ready for a second chance are still denied clemency. I support returning the requirement to a 3–2 majority so that so many more of our over-sentenced community members get their opportunity at a second chance.

I’m running to be the next US Senator from Pennsylvania not only because these are the issues I care deeply about, but because I believe that investing in Second Chances means creating a system that works for *everyone*. And my public service reflects these values — I’ve appointed and hired formerly incarcerated people who have gone through the clemency process to positions both in my office and on my campaign because I truly believe that their experience is invaluable in advancing clemency in PA.

I hope you’ll join me in my campaign to ensure a fair and deserved Second Chance for everyone. I’m forever grateful for your support.



John Fetterman

Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania. Candidate, United States Senate 2022. Running to be that 51st Vote. 🇺🇸