Sentencing reform, or getting tough on crime? Oz and Fetterman on criminal justice

John Fetterman wants sentencing reform and second chances. Oz opposes attempts to reduce incarceration, and believes it leads to crime.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (left) and Dr. Mehmet Oz. (AP Photos/Gene J. Puskar/Ryan Collerd)

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (left) and Dr. Mehmet Oz. (AP Photos/Gene J. Puskar/Ryan Collerd)

Many of the recent broadsides in Pennsylvania’s turbulent U.S. Senate race have involved criminal justice.

Throughout his campaign, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has highlighted his belief that the American justice system is “unforgiving and vindictive” and needs reform, and has proudly defended his record of aggressively pushing for clemency while leading Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons. Celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz has claimed, in ads and statements to the press, that Fetterman wants to release criminals from prison and will make Pennsylvania less safe.

The candidates’ differences also extend to other areas of criminal justice and public safety, including how bail should be handled and how accessible guns should be.

Here’s how Oz and Fetterman compare on a few key areas of criminal justice policy.

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Is sentencing in Pennsylvania too harsh?

One of Fetterman’s longstanding complaints about Pa. law is that non-capital first- and second-degree murder convictions carry an automatic life sentence. Any life sentence is also automatically life without parole — a law that has made the commonwealth an outlier.

This legal arrangement is especially controversial in the case of second-degree murder, which doesn’t necessarily involve killing another person. It just requires that a person is involved in a crime in which someone dies.

Fetterman has repeatedly called for more nuance in sentencing laws, and has held out his work on the Pardons Board as an example of policies he’d pursue on the federal level from the Senate. The board can hand down pardons — in which an already-released person has their record forgiven — and commutations, which cut the length of a prison sentence. Since Fetterman took over in 2019, both have dramatically increased.

Along with sentencing overhauls, Fetterman has argued for changes to make the criminal justice system more equitable — Pennsylvania is, for instance, the only state that doesn’t fund public defense for poor people — and says he supports “effective diversion programs for nonviolent offenders.”

He says he also wants to “make sure that serious crimes receive serious punishment.”

A campaign spokesperson said that as a senator, Fetterman would specifically support criminal justice legislation like the stalled George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to “build more trust between police and the communities they serve, and to expand accountability and transparency in police departments.” He added, Fetterman does not believe nonviolent marijuana charges should come with a prison sentence.

Oz has used Fetterman’s support for sentencing reform, and his use of the Pardons Board to commute sentences, as a central part of his ads attacking Fetterman. His campaign has been especially committed to highlighting Lee and Dennis Horton, brothers who were convicted of second-degree murder in the early 1990s, had their sentences unanimously commuted in 2021, and now work for Fetterman’s campaign.

The Horton brothers were arrested after being pulled over with a longtime friend, who was armed with a rifle, in their car. All three were convicted in an armed robbery in which a man was shot and killed. The Hortons declined plea bargains and tried to argue in court that they were innocent. After their convictions, the Hortons maintained their innocence throughout their nearly three decades in prison, saying they had merely picked up the friend.

In recent months, Oz’s campaign has called for Fetterman’s campaign to fire the Hortons, saying in a written statement that Fetterman “consistently puts murderers and other criminals ahead of Pennsylvania communities.”

Fetterman’s campaign spokesperson wrote in an email that on this topic, “all Dr. Oz and his team are engaging in is gross fear mongering. It’s time for Dr. Oz to answer if he believes that the wrongfully convicted should die in prison.”

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Oz’s campaign didn’t return a request for comment for this story.

Much of Oz’s other rhetoric on criminal justice has been similar. He also frequently says Fetterman wants to release “one-third of Pennsylvania’s inmate population” and that those released would be “dangerous criminals.” Oz is referring to a video in which Fetterman, during an online event, mentioned a comment from former state corrections secretary John Wetzel.

“He said something remarkable that I agree with,” Fetterman said during the panel. “He said we could reduce our prison population by a third and not make anyone less safe in Pennsylvania.”

Fetterman — and Wetzel — have said reducing prison populations can save money, and Fetterman has specifically pushed to reduce those populations by releasing older or sick inmates and reviewing questionable convictions.

Fetterman wants ‘common sense’ gun laws, Oz says they’re overbearing

On guns, the two candidates are closer together. Both stress their familiarity with guns — Fetterman notes on his website that “I am a gun owner, and I’ve been around guns my whole life.” Oz similarly says that “his father taught him to hunt when he was 12-13 years old and he taught his son how to shoot before he was in school.”

But Fetterman has a few restrictions he thinks would be common sense. They include universal background checks, red flag laws — which are primarily intended to get guns away from people in crises who might hurt themselves or others — and “more proactive efforts to get illegal guns off our streets.”

Oz has expressed blanket opposition to all laws that make it harder to have guns, specifically noting on his website that he opposes red flag laws and “liberal gun grabs.”

Oz, the site says “believes every law-abiding American citizen should be allowed to buy the gun of their desire,” and adds that the Second Amendment is not about hunting, but about “protecting ourselves.”

On policing, Fetterman and Oz are kind of similar

Fetterman often points to his record as chief law enforcement officer in Braddock, the small town where he was mayor, and specifically notes a more than five-year period when Braddock, which had been notorious for its crime, had no gun deaths.

“John’s whole career in politics started because of gun violence. When two of his students were shot and killed, he ran for Mayor to stop the violence,” a campaign staffer wrote in response to questions from WHYY. “Dr. Oz lives in a mansion on a hill, what does he know about confronting crime?”

Oz has criticized Fetterman for apparent spikes in violence during Fetterman’s tenure as mayor. The campaign has been citing FBI data exclusively from the Braddock police department — which last year had fewer than 10 part-time police officers, and no full-time officers — even though police from surrounding municipalities also respond to incidents in the borough. There are also longstanding concerns about the accuracy of Allegheny County municipalities reporting crime statistics to the state police.

But on the fundamental question of how to fund police, both candidates say essentially the same thing. Oz says he doesn’t want to cut police funding, framing the position as a repudiation of “radicals and the extreme left.”

Fetterman also says he wants to make sure “law enforcement has the resources necessary to do their job. He says he will “also prioritize oversight, accountability, and violence prevention.”

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