Expanding the Commutation System in Pennsylvania

What is Commutation?

Clemency is forbearance, leniency, or mercy as toward an offender.

Commutation is defined as a change of a sentence or punishment to one that is less severe.

Executive Clemency in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is a government action that is vested in the Governor and it is a discretionary function that cannot be appealed.

The history of commutation

In Pennsylvania, the power to commute a prison sentence was granted by King Charles II with the Charter of Pennsylvania in 1681. In the first state Constitution in 1776, this power was passed to the Governor with some limitation. The state Constitutions of 1790 and 1838 gave this power exclusively to the Governor. Governor Findley’s (1817-1920) abuse of this power resulted in the Act of 1829 that led to fewer pardons, but criticism for real or imagined abuses continued.

Change came again in the state Constitutional Convention in 1872. In 1874, the Board of Pardons was created and constituted in 1874, and mainly only Board-centered administrative changes took place until November 4, 1997, when a Constitutional amendment regarding the commutation of a life sentence was approved by the citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The amendment changed the voting standard for the recommendation of an application for commutation of a life sentence from a majority vote to a unanimous vote of the members of the Board of Pardons.

From 1967-1995, 380 Lifers were released via Commutation. But from 1995- 2015, even after the prison population had continued to grow- only 6 were granted the same.

The Commutation Process

If an inmate confined in a PDOC facility wishes to have their life sentence commuted, they are required to file an application with the Board of Pardons. The Board is made up of the Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, a clinical psychologist, a correctional expert, and a victim’s advocate.


After the application is filed, the Board requests a report from the PDOC concerning the applicant’s prison record, and a recommendation on the applicant’s request. The Board of Pardons then reviews the application and makes a determination to grant or deny a Public Hearing on the matter.


If a public hearing is granted, any citizen can make a statement and/or offer their opinion in favor or opposition. If the Board of Pardons votes to recommend the applicant’s request to the Governor, the application for commutation is forwarded to the Office of the Governor.

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Expand the Commutation System in PennsyLvania

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