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Lt. Gov. Stack: There's no offense that you don't have a chance at a pardon

Thurmond Berry and Tyrone Werts were both sentenced to life in prison for second-degree murder.

"Life meant life," Berry said. In Pennsylvania, adults convicted of first- and second-degree murder receive automatic life sentences without the possibility of parole.

A commutation of the sentence — in which the offender is granted clemency — is the only way to be released, and Pennsylvania commuted only nine convicts with life sentences from 1994-2014, according to information from the state Board of Pardons.

Both Philadelphia residents' stories were shared in a video Wednesday, Feb. 21, as part of the presentation for Lt. Gov. Michael Stack's Pathways to Pardons program at Crispus Attucks Community Center in York City.

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Lt. Gov. Mike Stack speaks as he and state Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, host Pathways to Pardons, an informational event, at Crispus Attucks Community Center in York City, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The program, which launched in 2015, gives convicts and ex-convicts a chance for clemency through commutation or a pardon after release.

"When I got up there, I was really angry. I was bitter," Berry said of his arrival to Graterford state prison in 1976. "I was resentful about the criminal justice system. In my mind, I was thinkin' I was innocent."

But he soon decided he needed to take responsibility for his actions and his crime.

Werts spent 24 years back and forth with the courts trying to gain a commutation, and finally, "Somebody listened to me, and heard my story," he said. "They believed my story had merit. Therefore, they recommended me for clemency."

Both were commuted and released — Werts in 2012, after 35 years in prison, and Berry in 2016, after 39 years.

Pathways to Pardons: The program, initiated by Stack, is unique to the state. It's for offenders who have shown transformation since their conviction and who hope to get a chance at a new life.

"No matter what your offense is, if it's something that happens in Pennsylvania, you have a chance at a pardon," Stack said. "There's no crime — there's no offense — that you don't have a chance at a pardon."

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich, who had a prior felony conviction, has had experience with second chances.

"I experienced not being eligible for jobs that I was very qualified for, feeling the diminished value that people put on me," he said. "So I have direct knowledge of it.”

More:Residents petition for Helfrich pardon, but process would take years

He supports the program because it restores offenders to being productive members of society.

“Productive people are generally happier people. They’re contributing more to our society, they’re taking care of their families, being good citizens," he said. "They should not have to be punished for their entire lives for things they did sometimes years and decades ago.”

What do they get back? Carol Ramsay grew up in Pittsburgh with an abusive stepfather and turned to alcohol, heroin and theft. She was in and out of rehab and prison.

"Twenty-five years have passed since then, and I am a different person," she said in a video shared at the Wednesday meeting. "A rehabilitated person."

Ramsay was pardoned by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2016, and she can now apply for jobs and live in government housing.

With a pardon, offenders can serve on a jury, serve in public office, carry a firearm, serve in the military, travel internationally and be employed in nursing, education, security or legal careers, according to the presentation.

After prisoners are released, Stack said in a video shared at the meeting, they have the highest ideals but can’t get good jobs or housing, and if the economy is bad, they end up unemployed. At that point, he said, the only way to succeed is through crime.

“That’s a ridiculous pattern to set for people," Stack added.

Other reasons for a pardon might be personal, such as a grandfather who does not want to be known by his grandchildren as a convicted felon, said Steven Burk, secretary of the Board of Pardons.

From left, York City residents Briana Ferguson and Julia Gentry sign in under the watchful eye of state Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, during Pathways to Pardons at Crispus Attucks Community Center in York City, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

How it works: Burk gave a presentation at Wednesday's meeting reviewing the Pathways to Pardons process.

After applying for pardon, offenders submit to an interview process and investigation, and each case is presented for merit review to the state Board of Pardons. If granted, the case moves to a public hearing before the board, he said.

The Board of Pardons includes board chair Stack, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro and three governor appointees confirmed by the state Senate — a criminal justice expert, a psychologist or psychiatrist and a victim representative.

They review misdemeanor and felony convictions, and send recommendations to the governor to grant clemency — nonviolent property and drug offenders need two votes for recommendation and violent offenders need three votes.

Out of respect for the victims of these crimes, Burk said, victims are notified when applications are filed and have the opportunity to come to the public hearing and give testimony. Family and friends of the offender also may give testimony.

The board is looking for acceptance of responsibility for the crime, a show of remorse, and evidence that the person has changed over the years, such as a lack of subsequent violations and being active in giving back to the community, Burk said.

Clemency means the offender is eligible to have the crime removed from the record, but that person must follow through with the expungement process.

Forty percent of those who are pardoned do not follow through, Burk said.

Offenders can apply for either a pardon or a commutation, but commutations only apply to state sentences, according to Ross Miller, chief of assessment and classification at the state Department of Corrections.

The state cannot commute an out-of-state prisoner, unless that sentence was transferred out of state, he said.

It takes about three years to process a case, Burk said, but the board has increased the number of cases by 50 percent — now doing 150 cases per review.

There are four merit reviews per year, with a fifth recently added, he said.

Denial: In some cases, the board will deny a recommendation.

Reasons for this typically include insufficient time to see a transformation, no expression of remorse, failure to address concerning issues such as drug or alcohol abuse or inability to remember details and answer questions from the case, Burk said.

The board will not share its reasons for denial, but a person who receives a denial may apply for a reconsideration hearing 12 months after the first denial or 24 months after a second denial.

Burk said the board is looking for additional transformation or reasons of merit, not just a dissatisfaction with the original decision.

Today: Gov. Wolf has granted 185 pardons to date, and two commutations of life in prison, according to statistics from the Board of Pardons.

Wednesday's presentation stated three lifer applications and one minimum sentence application are pending his review. Applications for commutation have risen from 57 per year from 2010 to 2015 to 83 per year from 2016 to 2017, the presentation states.

Legislation in the state House is aiming to update minimum requirements for applications to the Board of Pardons to allow for a more timely review process.

The next public hearings before the board are in the Supreme Courtroom at the state Capitol March 8 and March 9, with an optional date on March 7.

To apply for a pardon, visit the Board of Pardons website or request a mailed copy of the application, which is $8 plus a $25 filing fee. Those who cannot afford the fee may fill out the pauper’s form to waive it.

State Rep. Carol Hill-Evans said she received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the meeting Wednesday, including support from magisterial District Judges Joel Toluba and Ron Haskell, who were in attendance.

She is hoping to bring a second informational meeting to the 95th District and asks anyone who is interested to call her office at 717-848-9595.