An open letter to Attorney General Josh Shapiro

We are writing to demand that Attorney General, Josh Shapiro, reconsider his approach to commutation to align it with progressive criminal justice practices that he frequently claims to support. In our eyes, it is inconsistent with the values and practices of progressive “smart” criminal justice to consistently deny commutation to rehabilitated candidates whose release presents no threat to public safety, saves taxpayers a significant amount of money, and helps undo some of the damage done by previous “tough-on-crime” practitioners.

We have all been supportive of Mr. Shapiro’s recent commitment to “smart-on-crime” criminal justice reform and his opposition to the retributive, tough-on-crime approach that has caused so much harm in the state’s communities while also costing it billions of dollars. Many of us have applauded his recent activity advocating for new and more effective forms of criminal justice, including hosting an event entitled “Resistance Through Action” about grassroots opposition to the regressive policies of President Trump, and participating in a panel of dynamic politicians committed to undoing mass incarceration at the University of Pennsylvania. At the University of Pennsylvania event, Mr. Shapiro shared the stage with reformers like Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, NY Congressman Jerrold Nadler, and PA House Rep Jordan Harris, and made every effort to show agreement with his co-panelists about the dire importance of lowering the prison population, changing narratives about criminality and returning citizens, and rolling back the disastrous mandatory minimum sentencing that has kept thousands of people locked up in prison well after they have stopped presenting threats to public safety.

Not long after that event, however, Mr. Shapiro voted against commuting the life-without-parole sentence of the aged and severely disabled William “Smitty” Smith, and shortly after publicly confirmed his opposition to allowing people like Mr. Smith the opportunity to get out of prison alive. Out of the five people on the commutation board, Mr. Shapiro was the only person to vote against Mr. Smith’s commutation; since the board requires a unanimous vote, Mr Shapiro’s vote single-handedly kept Mr. Smith from being granted release.  Mr. Shapiro’s decision was shocking to many of us since, even by the standards of tough-on-crime politicians, there is little support for keeping someone like Mr. Smith in prison: as a disabled victim of a stroke, he poses no credible public safety threat, he has an excellent support system waiting to help care for him in Philadelphia, his release would save the state of Pennsylvania between $60,000-100,000 per year (after factoring in his substantial in-prison healthcare costs), and he also holds long records of both good behavior in prison and engagement with his community outside prison. The only remaining motive for keeping him in prison would appear to be retribution and unending vengeance for its own sake, a motive at the heart of the policies Mr.Shapiro has claimed to oppose, and one that is frankly incompatible with smart-on-crime reforms, not to mention the values of civil society.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Mr. Smith has only remained in prison for so many decades due to one of the country’s worst and most damaging mandatory minimums: Pennsylvania’s Life Without Parole sentence. The state is unique in giving this sentence to every single one of its citizens convicted of first or second degree homicide; since Mr. Smith was convicted as an accomplice and not the direct perpetrator of his crime; he would have likely been released via parole decades ago in most states. For Mr. Shapiro to deny release to someone in this situation seems to imply loyalty to the worst aspects of the “tough-on-crime” policies that created mandatory minimums and emphasized unending punishment as the only response to crime and social ills.

As a result, we now call on Mr. Shapiro to realign his approach to commutation with the values of rehabilitation that the “tough-on-crime” era overlooked and suppressed.  At a time when progressive reformers in office throughout the state are working to minimize the damage these policies have done to communities, Mr. Shapiro’s opposition to commutation makes him a champion of the old, failed approach and a direct roadblock to more positive and community-minded reforms. Commutation cases offer a direct way for Mr Shapiro to demonstrate his commitment to the more constructive criminal justice practices that his peers have been deploying. We ask that he start showing this by voting for Mr. Smith’s release at his next hearing on June 28th and then showing mercy to other rehabilitated and redeemed men and women from our communities throughout the state.


Abolitionist Law Center

ACLU of Pennsylvania

Amistad Law Project

Art for Justice

Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI)

Decarcerate PA

Human Rights Coalition


Media Mobilizing Project

Project SAFE

Reclaim Philadelphia

The Center for Returning Citizens

215 People’s Alliance

Unitarian Universalist Pennsylvania Legislative Advocacy Network

University of Pennsylvania's Center for Carceral Communities


Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project

John Bergen (Assistant Pastor, Germantown Mennonite Church)

Etta cetera (Let’s Get Free Woman and Trans Prisoners Defense Committee)

Lorraine Haw (Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration, sister of a homicide victim)

Ellen Melchiondo (Women Lifers Resume Project)

Elaine Selan (The Gray Panthers)

Tomiko Shine (Aging People in Prison-Human Rights Campaign)