Pennsylvania lawmakers, prison reform advocates seek to expand eligibility for compassionate release

In this June 1, 2018, file photo, people walk on a tour of the West section of the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix in Collegeville, Pa

In this June 1, 2018, file photo, people walk on a tour of the West section of the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix in Collegeville, Pa. (Jacqueline Larma/AP)

This story originally appeared on WESA

A bipartisan group of state legislators, activists, and former prisoners gathered in downtown Pittsburgh Friday to support a bill to expand Pennsylvania’s compassionate release program.

Senate Bill 835 would provide a pathway for more geriatric and terminally ill incarcerated individuals to apply for parole.

Congress expanded the compassionate release process in 2018 when it passed the First Step Act. Efforts to reform state programs are underway across the country.

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Approval rates vary, but overall, 17.5% of motions for compassionate release are approved in the United States, according to sentencing commission statistics.

Just 15% of those who applied for compassionate release in western Pennsylvania were able to walk free between January 2020 and June 2021.

“The United States has a mass incarceration problem,” said state Democratic state Rep. Summer Lee. “And Pennsylvania is its leader.”

Under current rules, an inmate must petition their sentencing judge in order to qualify for compassionate release. They must also obtain a doctor’s note that attests that the person has less than a year to live. Often, the inmate must also be unable to walk.

“Pennsylvania’s current compassionate release program doesn’t work,” said Republican state Sen. Camera Bartolotta, the bill’s co-sponsor. “This criteria [are] nearly impossible to qualify for.”

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The bill would expand the possibility of parole to those in poor health due to a terminal illness, a chronic and debilitating physical condition, serious functional or cognitive impairment, or those with deteriorating mental and physical health due to aging.

“Prisons should not be nursing homes,” said Democratic state Rep. Sara Innamorato. “Not only is there no public safety benefit to their continued incarceration, but our state sentencing policies are depriving communities of the valuable mentorship of incarcerated elders.”

Innamorato joined Bartolotta, Lee, the Abolitionist Law Center, and its legislative wing, Straight Ahead, at the City-County building downtown Friday. Several dozen activists and formerly incarcerated Pennsylvanians were also present.

If approved, the bill would require an applicant to be at least 55 years old and to have served at least half of their sentence or 25 years, whichever comes first. The Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole must also determine that the incarcerated individual will not pose a threat to others if released.

“This is not just you reach a certain age and you’re out,” Bartolotta said. “[And] being released is not just out on the street… they would be under supervision, they just wouldn’t be behind bars.”

The bill could release hundreds of geriatric and terminally ill people sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in Pennsylvania. The Commonwealth sentences the second-highest number of people in the world to life without parole, outpaced only by Florida.

Avis Lee served 40 years behind bars for second-degree murder after acting as a lookout for a fatal robbery. She was released earlier this year when her sentence was commuted.

“I left a lot of friends behind who deserve a second chance,” she said Friday. “People will die unnecessarily in those prisons if they are not released. They’re aging. They’re getting very sick.”

Reps. Lee and Innamorato said they hope to pass similar legislation in the House soon.

“We are keeping people behind bars who pose no threat any longer to our society,” said Summer Lee. “These are folks who are mentors… choir directors…family members and loved ones, former breadwinners, and community members.”

The Senate bill, first introduced in August by Sen. Sharif Street, is before the judiciary committee. A hearing has not yet been scheduled.

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