One thing Pa. gubernatorial candidates agree on: Criminal justice system needs change

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Ronald Lewis’ criminal record will be sealed in 2020 thanks to a state law supported by both candidates for Pennsylvania governor. (Aaron Moselle/WHYY)

Ronald Lewis’ criminal record will be sealed in 2020 thanks to a state law supported by both candidates for Pennsylvania governor. (Aaron Moselle/WHYY)

Seven nights a week, Ronald Lewis drives from Germantown to South Philadelphia to watch over a hulking boiler inside a chemical plant as long a football field. During the day, the father of four runs his 10-man heating and air conditioning company.

“It don’t bother me,” said Lewis, 39, during a recent shift. “Whatever we have to do to keep the lights on, that’s legitimate.”

It’s a far cry from his early 20s, when Lewis was arrested twice in three weeks — once for conspiracy after he yelled out to a drug dealer that police were driving down the block, and another time for stealing a pocketbook from a department store.

Lewis was later convicted of both misdemeanors.

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“I know it happened, but I don’t know that person,” he said. “That person been gone over 16 years.”

In 2020, Lewis’ criminal record will match his belief that he’s a changed man, thanks to Pennsylvania’s “clean slate” law.

Signed by Gov. Tom Wolf in June, the measure automatically seals most nonviolent misdemeanor convictions after about 10 years, so long as you haven’t committed another crime since.

Law enforcement authorities can still see arrests and convictions, but the public — including landlords and most employers — can’t.

“It meant for me that someone actually believed in us enough to sign a bill for second chances,” Lewis said. “It wasn’t just no more a slogan or just to get votes to get elected.”

Lewis is one of an estimated 3 million Pennsylvanians with a criminal record. In the state’s gubernatorial race, the need to change the criminal justice system Lewis has navigated is one issue the candidates actually agree on.

Wolf, a Democrat, considers the “clean slate” law – expected to help hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians – one of his signature criminal justice initiatives, as does his opponent, former Republican state Sen. Scott Wagner, who co-sponsored the bill.

Wolf promises further improvements

If elected to a second term, Wolf promises deeper changes to the system.

Wolf wants fairer sentencing practices, more uniformity in procedures for revoking a defendant’s probation, and a cash bail system that doesn’t keep people in jail simply because they can’t afford to pay — though he has offered scant details about specific fixes he’s proposing.

“We basically have debtors prison,” the governor said in an interview. “If you are picked up and arrested and you go before a judge and he says, ‘$50 bail,’ and you can’t come up with $50, you’re in prison until you get a hearing in court.”

There’s also a positive trend Wolf would like to continue: Pennsylvania’s declining prison population.

There are 2,500 fewer inmates now than when Wolf took office three years ago. In January 2017, the Department of Corrections reported having 48,438 inmates.

Wolf said merging the Department of Corrections with the Board of Probation and Parole has helped. It’s forced both sides of the system to consider an inmate’s life before and after prison, he said.

“In the past, I think it was sort of a ‘not my job’ kind of thing,” said Wolf.

At the same time, there’s growing pressure on Wolf from criminal justice reform advocates to reverse new security measures installed at state prisons. The crackdown came when dozens of staff members were sickened after being exposed to synthetic drugs, prompting a 12-day lockdown at all 25 correctional facilities. The measures include giving inmates photocopies of their mail instead of the originals and temporarily suspending all book donations and gifts.

A spokesman for the Wolf administration said the governor stands by the policy changes.

Wagner touts plan for ‘struggling cities’

Wagner also champions the state’s “clean slate” law on the campaign trail. He helped introduce the bill before leaving the Pennsylvania Senate to run for governor.

The bipartisan measure was Wagner’s only real foray into the world of criminal justice reform. Now it’s part of Wagner’s five-prong plan to help the state’s “struggling cities,” including Philadelphia, where he hopes to woo Democratic voters in a Democratic stronghold.

If elected, Wagner wants to partner with lawmakers to cut the number of people going to prison for parole violations. He also wants prison sentences for the same crime to be more predictable across the state.

“I’m not going to be a governor who’s going to sit in his office and wait for bills to come there. I’m going to be working with the legislature – House and Senate – on my agenda,” said Wagner in an interview.

His plan also calls for the Department of Corrections and the Department of Community and Economic Development to create a public database of programs with a good track record of giving people “necessary assistance for successful re-entry.”

“We have a high recidivism rate and we need to be working with people inside the prison system on a re-entry program to make sure that when they get out of prison, that they potentially have employment right away,” said Wagner.

Between 2000 and 2014, about 60 percent of people released from prison in Pennsylvania were arrested again or back behind bars, according to the DOC.

Many of Wagner’s ideas for changing the system come from what he’s learned from one Philadelphia man.

Tracey Fisher, who spent 22 years in prison for selling drugs, runs Gateway to Re-Entry, a program for people coming home from prison. For the last year and a half, he’s played a unique role with Wagner’s campaign.

“I bring Scott Wagner through the urban community, let him see the plight, let him see the poverty-stricken areas, bring him up to speed on re-entry,” he said.

Fisher also founded Democrats for Wagner, an effort to flip votes across the state and in Philadelphia, where the city estimates one in three residents has a criminal record. Fisher says he’s backing Wagner because he cares about the city’s most stubborn problems.

“Being the person that he is, he’s trying to figure out how in the world did this happen to the urban community, and that’s the type of governor you want,” said Fisher.

Wagner’s platform doesn’t address prison sentences of life without the possibility of parole, a longstanding issue for criminal justice activists now at the heart of a bill introduced in the state Senate. The measure calls for parole consideration 15 years into a life sentence.

Wagner said he’d “sit down and look at everything” if he’s elected.

“Depending on the level of crime, what it is, how violent the crime or nonviolent, I’d be willing to look at anything. We’ve got to change the system,” said Wagner.

Life without parole is automatic for those convicted of first and- second-degree murder in Pennsylvania, as well as those found guilty of at least two counts of third-degree murder.

A recent report from the Abolitionist Law Center found that the state sentences more inmates to life without parole than any country outside of the U.S. More than 5,300 prisoners in the state are serving life without parole, according to the report.

Wolf’s agenda also doesn’t include a stance on the bill — Wolf says he hasn’t read it yet. But like Wagner, he doesn’t appear to be against taking a closer look at the issue.

“I don’t think we should have blanket anything,” said Wolf. “I do not like the idea that we take out of judges’ hands the ability to assess situations and make decisions based on what they see.”

Polls show Wagner faces long odds. A recent Franklin & Marshall College poll give Wolf a 22-point lead among “likely voters.”

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