Editorial: Are Wolf’s commutations part of reform movement?
Three more life-without-parole prisoners will be released after Gov. Tom Wolf commuted the sentences of a convicted murderer and two men who participated in crimes where someone was killed.
The moves were approved by the Board of Pardons before being sent to the governor.
Wolf has now commuted eight life sentences. It is easy to see the move as wishy-washy leniency from a governor who won’t sign death warrants, leaving them to his Secretary of Corrections even though Pennsylvania hasn’t actually executed anyone in 20 years.
But it might be the next step in a national conversation about prison reform.
Take Samuel Barlow of Pittsburgh.
Barlow was barely 18 when he made a tragically stupid decision. He was the lookout for a Dauphin County bank robbery with two 17-year-olds. A customer tried to stop them and was shot and killed.
It was 1968.
His court record is a decades-long road map of denials of appeals and applications while representing himself. He has gone before the board asking for clemency repeatedly, according to Pennlive and the Philadelphia Inquirer, with even the Dauphin County prosecutor supporting his release. One of his co-defendants was released after a change in law making life sentences illegal for those under 18. The other died in prison. The victim’s last known relative has also died.
No, Barlow hasn’t died. But it’s hard to say he hasn’t fulfilled the idea of a lifetime behind bars. Fifty years came and went, almost triple the time he lived freely outside. He went into the prison system the same age most kids enter college. He will leave it 68 years old, older than many people are when they retire.
Pennsylvania and the federal government are both taking steps toward changing the focus of corrections, attempting to make it more about fixing problems than kennelling dangerous people, because eventually the people are supposed to go free and it is better for everyone if they leave prison better people than they were when they were convicted.
That may also mean reconsidering what a life sentence means.
Pennsylvania has 5,500 people serving life without parole. If more of them leave as senior citizens like Barlow, having never worked a regular adult job and paid into Social Security, how do they survive? Is society better served by keeping them locked up, or is there a more cost-effective yet safe middle ground — maybe something like the halfway house where Barlow will spend at least a year before being truly freed?