Governor Shapiro Calls for the Abolition of the Death Penalty
On Thursday, February 16th, Josh Shapiro became the first Governor of Pennsylvania to publicly call for the abolition of the death penalty. At Mosaic Community Church, the same church where Josh Shapiro met with family members of the incarcerated last year, a group of advocates, public servants and people directly impacted by mass incarceration gathered for the important announcement. Staff from Amistad Law Project were on hand to watch the announcement and had worked with Abolitionist Law Center, Senator Nikil Saval, Rep. Rick Krajewski, Council Member Kendra Brooks and others to advocate with Governor Josh Shapiro for sensible criminal justice reform policies.
Mayor Kenney and Senator Vince Hughes helped give introductory remarks about the importance of being in opposition to the death penalty. As the press conference opened up Rep. Rick Krajewski grounded us powerfully in the space, where Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI) meets monthly, and its importance to both the community and the moment. He said, “It’s hard to encompass what it means to attend a CADBI meeting so the word I will use is family. Every CADBI meeting is a family gathering. There are hugs and daps, greetings and blessings and a lot of yelling over each other…because it is about family. It’s about sons, cousins, brothers, uncles, family members - blood or chosen. Family members who are no longer physically with us. Family members who may spend the rest of their lives in prison. For years across Pennsylvania organizations like CADBI have fought to end mass incarceration.”
When Governor Josh Shapiro gave his remarks he made it crystal clear that he would never sign a death warrant. It was vitally important that he uphold the death penalty moratorium, because at present the only person who has the immediate ability to stop the state machinery of death is the Governor. How it works is this: as Governor he can refuse to sign death warrants, but then the Department of Corrections Secretary is constitutionally obligated to sign them. However, while the Governor cannot commute sentences without the Board of Pardons he has a broad and unilateral power to suspend a sentence through reprieve which is a temporary stay which stops a sentence from being carried out. As long as a future Governor does not undo the reprieve order the sentence stays suspended. That is how the death penalty moratorium is carried out in Pennsylvania.
However, he went beyond just upholding the status quo of the Wolf administration who functionally ended the death penalty in PA for 8 years. Governor Shapiro took it a step further by calling for the outright end of the death penalty saying, “That’s why today, I’m respectfully calling on the General Assembly to work with me to abolish the death penalty in Pennsylvania – once and for all…Pennsylvania should do what 25 other states have done in outlawing the death penalty or refusing to impose it – including many of our neighbors such as New Jersey, Maryland, and West Virginia.”
In a state where the struggle to end the death penalty has been a long road it was a brave and determined step forward and we applaud Governor Shapiro for taking it.
Governor Shapiro also took the time to highlight the voices of some movement leaders in the movement to end mass incarceration saying, “Six months ago, I came to this very Church in West Philadelphia to have a conversation with many of you. I listened and I learned from you. I learned from people like Saleem Holbrook, who was incarcerated for over two decades and has dedicated his life to serving our community. I learned from people like Ms. Dee Dee, whose own brother was murdered – but who believes his killer should live, albeit in prison. This place means something to me because those are some of the stories and the lessons I learned here.”
People change, people change the world. Governor Shapiro’s announcement showed us powerfully how a public officials position can evolve in principled and dynamic ways over time. It also showed the power of movements and how they can act as catalysts for change.
“As has been alluded to this is the continuation of a conversation that started last year about the reform of the criminal justice system by those who are involved in it directly and those who have been pulled into it, because they have loved ones who are involved.", Senator Nikil Saval said to close out the press conference, "Im grateful to Governor Shapiro for reconvening us to this space and more grateful to him still for the changes he is driving forward to make the laws and systems of our commonwealth more aligned with its values and ideals…There are many instances in which are criminal justice system falls short, but perhaps none is more stark than in our Commonwealth’s use of capital punishment- a racist, classist, cruel and utterly useless institution…the death penalty must be abolished. I’m grateful to Josh Shapiro for his receptiveness to the needs of our people, for his bravery in steering our state to join others in forging a different and better path and his leadership in calling on the General Assembly to make this path our new reality.”