New Pardon Board Official Wants to Expand Clemency in Pennsylvania, Where Thousands Are Sentenced to Die in Prison
Celeste Trusty, a longtime activist for sentencing reform, speaks with Bolts about her recent appointment to the state’s clemency system, and her desire to “help liberate people.”
Daniel Nichanian, | February 16, 2022
When the pandemic started in 2020, Celeste Trusty worked furiously to alert public authorities of the dangers the virus posed to people trapped in Pennsylvania’s crowded prisons. As state director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a criminal justice reform group, she also called on the state’s Board of Pardons to “broadly provide clemency” and “do everything within their power to provide relief to those who have been crushed by the justice system.”
Last month, Trusty was appointed secretary of Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons—the same body she recently pressured, and which reviews applications for pardons and commutation of life sentences. She now vows to bring the outlook she displayed from the outside into her new role.
“If this is our only shot to get these people out, we need to be doing everything we can to really change and quicken the process so that people aren’t just shut down whenever they apply,” she told Bolts. “We’re completely ignoring the human capacity to change.”
Trusty, who has worked with incarcerated people in various roles, is walking into a dire situation. Due to draconian sentencing laws, Pennsylvania is home to near-record numbers of people sentenced to die in prison. More than 5,300 Pennsylanians are serving life without the possibility of parole, according to a study by the Sentencing Project, and thousands more face sentences that are so long as to be the functional equivalent. Nearly two-thirds of them are Black.
For these thousands of aging incarcerated Pennsylvanians, whose stories were captured last year in the podcast What is Life, there is little hope other than receiving a commutation, which requires a recommendation by the board and then approval by the governor. And those are very rare.
Clemency used to be much more common. One governor in the 1970s commuted over 250 life sentences. But as tough-on-crime norms hardened, life sentences soared. Clemency rules were harshened in 1997 after one man committed several murders upon his release. According to data by the pardons board, a total of only six commutations were issued between 1997 and 2014.
Commutations did pick up when Governor Tom Wolf came into office in 2015, and even more so when John Fetterman became lieutenant governor in 2019. That role has also made Fetterman chair of the board of pardons, and he has gone further than is usual for a politician in embracing clemency, ending the application fee and pushing the board to recommend more commutations. Since 2019, Pennsylvania has commuted 37 life sentences.
Fetterman, a Democrat who is now running for U.S. Senate, appointed Trusty to her new role on the board’s staff. (Trusty had been working for Fetterman’s campaign since the spring of 2021.)
Trusty she says she will use it to push for more changes. But the clock may be ticking to significantly expand clemency in the state. Pennsylvania elects new statewide officials this fall, and any number of the winners could choose to effectively shut down commutations again. By 2023, the state will have a new governor, attorney general, and lieutenant governor; any one of those officials has de facto veto power over commutations.
In a wide-ranging interview, Trusty spoke with Bolts about the role she intends to play in reforming the state’s clemency process and the human capacity for change.
You’ve long worked on reducing incarceration from an outsider position. How are you approaching this transition to an insider role?
It’s great to be able to walk into work and carry all of these folks with me who have mentored me throughout my journey as an advocate, to try to help liberate people who have mentored me and might still be fighting for freedom. It’s really interesting for me to come into this role with that advocacy background and a good understanding of the struggles that folks are going through while they’re applying, that families are going through while their loved ones are applying, and really taking that to heart and looking at how we can improve this process to be more transparent, more accessible, and more compassionate for everyone involved.
The board recently hired people who had themselves received clemency. How can broadening the perspective of the people involved in the clemency process can make a difference?
Having the expertise of George Trudel and Naomi Blount, the two folks you are talking about the lieutenant governor hired, is invaluable for the folks who are currently applying. Both Georgia and Naomi had been sentenced to life without parole, and they fought for decades for their freedom. They are taking that experience and trying to help guide those folks who are going through it. They also provide great guidance to the folks who work on the board staff. People who are experts don’t necessarily need to be coming from academia, they don’t necessarily need to have a PhD. Who better to work in these positions and lead in these roles than folks who have been impacted by that system and who have that direct knowledge?
In 2019, the board lifted the fee that people had to pay to apply until then. What other changes can the board make to alleviate the burden of applying?
I want to recognize the improvements that have been made over the last few years. As you mentioned, there’s no fee to apply for a pardon or commutation; that was a huge barrier before. There are wonderful organizations in the community that do pardon clinics, who will help people apply. At the same time, there’s still so much more that can be done. Since clemency is the only option for so many people, we need to be making sure that we’re working to make the process easier, simpler, more transparent. One of the things we constantly hear from folks is when they send their application they don’t hear anything for a while. We really want to make sure it doesn’t feel just like a black box.
How can more of the burden be shifted onto the state? For instance, can the state ensure that people going through the process have access to counsel?
Pennsylvania has historically underfunded legal support, and the Board of Pardons. This leaves so many people to navigate this often confusing process on their own, with family members, or with the support of our legal aid and advocacy communities. We are committed to taking whatever steps we can as an agency to help improve this process. We also released a new application that reduces some of the burden of gathering records on applicants and places some of that work on the Board of Prisons and our partner agencies.
Far more people are sent to prison for life in Pennsylvania than in neighboring states. What explains the scope of life sentences there?
Pennsylvania is an outlier with life without parole and virtual life without parole sentences, and that is not something that I think any Pennsylvanian should be proud of. One of the big things is mandatory life without parole sentencing for first degree and second degree murder. Second degree murder, that’s felony murder: Even without the intent to cause that great harm, those folks are sentenced to life without parole. We have over 1,000 people in Pennsylvania serving life for second degree murder, and 70 percent of those folks are Black. These folks, who were largely young adults when these things occurred. We’re removing them from society for the rest of their lives, and that’s something that is just beyond me.
When we send people to mandatory life without parole, we’re completely ignoring the human capacity to change. We all have caused harm, every single one of us has. We’ve all been in need of mercy and forgiveness at some point. But that’s not applied at all to how we sentence people.
How do you see your role when it comes to confronting this stark racial disparity?
The issue starts with how we handle the legal system from start to finish. In every single step of the legal process, you see disparities, and then when you look at people who have resources to hire best attorneys, that’s going to have an impact as well.
We are pulling and removing so many Black and brown people from their communities, pulling them out of the workforce, pulling them out of being able to provide for their families. Communities need elders, people who have lived in a community for 50 years and know everybody’s kids. We’re removing so many of those possible mentors and leaders from a community forever because they might have done something at a young age. We’re doing a disservice not just to people who we’re putting in prison, but to people who need those mentors and elders. We need to look at the impact of what we’re doing not just on the people inside of our prisons, which is of course a huge issue, but on our communities at large.
Commutations were almost never granted for decades as the prison population exploded, but that’s changed in recent years. There were more commutations of life sentences in 2019 alone than over the previous 20 years combined. What prompted this shift?
Looking at the last few years, you see how important it is to have people in power who care about clemency and second chances. There have been 47 commutations of life sentences in the last 25 years. 41 of those came out of the Wolf Administration. It shows that, when we care, we’re able to impact lives. Think about those 41 people who now are home, who are able to work and contribute to the community, who are able to take their experience and mentor folks in their community, who are able to parent and grandparent in their community.
Why do you think people in power have grown more supportive of clemency?
There has been a gigantic shift in the last decade. We’ve seen incredible results from research showing that folks who were convicted of violent offenses and sentenced to life or extremely long sentences are able to come home and be incredibly productive members of society. You look at the recent juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania; they’ve come home, and so many are making the community and the world better and using their platforms to uplift stories of other folks who haven’t had the opportunity for relief yet. That helps shift the conversation where more people feel comfortable talking about second chances for people who might have caused great harm.
There’s something about this that resonates with everybody. Something about seeing old men and women who are walking with a walker, who could not hurt a fly if they tried, who have served 50 years in our state prison, who do not need to be there anymore—whether that tugs at your heartstrings, or whether that tugs at your wallet, there is something about criminal legal reform and second chances that I think really appeals to everybody.
Pennsylvania made commutations harder in 1997 after someone committed murders upon his release from prison, requiring a unanimous vote from the five-member board instead of a simple majority. How much of an obstacle is that rule to expanding clemency?
When that was changed in 1997, clemency really shut down. To get five people to agree that someone who has caused great harm is ready to come home and be productive, no matter how remorseful they are, no matter how much work they’ve done—it is hard to get five people to agree on anything. If you need a simple majority, if you need three people to see that you are a human being willing and ready to come home, I think that’s really one huge change that could open up clemency to so many more people.
One of the huge obstacles for clemency comes out of that one case that could derail absolutely everything. Reginald McFadden behaved in a way that was awful, and we are still today seeing what one terrible case can do to thousands of incredible cases. But one thing I hear constantly is that the folks who are applying know what one bad decision can do to the rest of the people who deserve to come home. And they bear that every single day. That’s a burden that I can’t even imagine, on top of everything else that they’re going through.
There are more than 5,000 people in Pennsylvania serving life without parole, yet we are discussing 41 commutations as the most in decades. Each commutation is meaningful, but the sheer gap between those numbers is so striking. What do you think about the asymmetry between these two figures?
The issue is that Pennsylvania needs to create more mechanisms outside of clemency. We need to expand and continue to build upon clemency, but it can’t be the only way because clemency is hard, and it does take long. As much as each of those 41 people should be celebrated and their story should be told, we should be really holding our commonwealth to a higher standard.
And we don’t know what administrations are going to look like in the next years and decades; we can’t rely on the boost in clemency that we’ve seen in the last few years.
What other mechanisms would you want to see?
A lot of it is legislative. We need to look at felony murder reform. Over 1,000 people are serving mandatory life without parole for felony murder. They did not intend to take a life, and they are given the same exact punishment as a first degree case.
Then, medical and elder release mechanisms. When you look at our prison population, largely because so many people serve life without parole and virtual life sentences, people are getting old and sick. You should be allowing opportunities for folks to seek relief. If they are old, if they are sick, their continued incarceration serves no further purpose outside of just vengeance. Why are we then turning a blind eye to the benefits of second chances?
So many folks are afraid of approaching the subject. It’s about who is willing to stand up and say, ‘This is not okay. These are the people who need the opportunity to be heard and supported, and come home to our community.’
I challenge everybody to go inside of a prison and meet these people who are serving life without parole. They have changed my life on a grand scale. You start to see that, yes, they might have caused great harm at one point, but some of these folks are doing more with their lives while they’re inside, with no opportunity and no hope for relief, then a lot of the folks who have never been impacted by the criminal legal system. They’re not the same person they were when they were 18, or 25. They’re 40, 50, 60, 70, even 80 and 90 now, and they’re not that same person that a court of law said, ‘That’s it, you did this, and now we’re gonna completely ignore your capacity to change.’
We need to make sure that our laws reflect evidence and science, and the innate understanding that you and I and every single person is not the same as we were when we were younger. We all change.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity