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Two Rising Democratic Stars May Be Vying for Pennsylvania Governor. On Criminal Justice, They’re Very Different

Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman has jumpstarted the state’s pardons process, while Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s self-styled progressivism isn’t winning over advocates.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photos from Getty Images.

Pennsylvania, the swing state that ultimately clinched Joe Biden’s victory, took center stage during the presidential election. Soon, the state will be home to another political battle: the 2022 governor’s race. 

Political insiders in the state have long speculated that Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a former state representative who was re-elected this month, will be vying for the Democratic nomination. His Republican opponent in November’s election even raised the issue in campaign ads. 

But Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman recently told The Caucus, a local newspaper, that he is also considering a run. Fetterman, who gained considerable national attention in the days after the election for his TV appearances disputing President Trump’s voter fraud claims, was elected lieutenant governor in 2018. Prior to that, he was mayor of Braddock, a small post-industrial town in western Pennsylvania outside Pittsburgh. 

While both men may be seeking the same nomination, they could embrace starkly different policy positions on criminal justice issues, advocates say.

The governor can play a pivotal role in shaping how the criminal legal system works across the state, said Celeste Trusty, Pennsylvania state policy director for FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums).

“Pennsylvania’s next governor should prioritize an agenda that embraces second chances for Pennsylvanians who have had contact with the legal system,” Trusty said. “We have more than 41,000 residents in our state prisons here in Pennsylvania, and many of these people are older and have valuable experience and skills they are ready to contribute to their home communities.”

“Attorney General Shapiro’s record shows he has been a longtime advocate for criminal justice reform,” Shapiro’s spokesperson Jacklin Rhoads told The Appeal in an email. She pointed to his support this year for a statewide database of police misconduct, which Shapiro said would prevent departments from “unknowingly hiring officers with past records of misconduct.”

Rhoads also said Shapiro “ended cash bail for non-violent offenses.” However, an Appeal review of nearly 1,000 cases filed by Shapiro’s office in 2018 found more than 100 instances where the state asked for bail in nonviolent drug offense cases and fraud cases.

Shapiro has drawn sharp criticism over his record as a member of the Board of Pardons. Advocates say he has not provided deserving people with second chances.

An analysis by the Harrisburg news outlet Pennsylvania Capital-Star found that Shapiro, who is a member of the state Board of Pardons, has repeatedly denied clemency to those serving life without the possibility of parole. In 2019, he voted against recommending a commutation of a life sentence more than any other board member—nearly 60 percent of the time. A person seeking a commutation of a life sentence must receive unanimous approval from the board before the governor can grant clemency.

Shapiro has countered that he has voted in favor of more commutations than any other attorney general in recent history, though the board has been largely stagnant for much of the last several decades. Between 2000 and 2018, the board voted on just 30 applications and recommended only 12 to the governor. However, under Fetterman, who is chair of the board of pardons, the board has voted on 40 applications and recommended 17 in 2019 alone.

Shapiro’s office has also defended Pennsylvania State Police in cases alleging misconduct. In one instance, his office defended state police after officers used a bulldozer to run over a man fleeing a drug arrest. Though Shapiro’s office is the first tapped to defend state agencies like PSP, advocates say he could decline these cases and request that the state Office of General Counsel prosecute them instead.

Shapiro has also supported homicide charges for people who sell or share drugs in cases where the drugs have resulted in someone’s death. He has publicly opposed the development of a supervised injection site in Philadelphia. In a 2017 meeting with reporters about the opioid crisis, when asked about the proposed site, Shapiro said “there is no safe way to inject heroin, fentanyl or carfentanil into your system.”

Robert Saleem Holbrook, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, told The Appeal that “we observe [Shapiro] governing as a traditional prosecutor and maintaining the mass incarceration status quo.” 

“His record at the Board of Pardons would warrant a D- because he has cast votes against people who have been in prison for decades, rehabilitated themselves and have the support of the Department of Corrections,” he said.

In February, Shapiro announced the creation of a conviction integrity unit, a division of the attorney general’s office that aims to right wrongful convictions. To date, the unit’s work has not led to any exonerations. A conviction integrity unit set up by Philadelphia district attorney in January 2018 has exonerated 15 people.

Fetterman’s criminal justice record, while shorter, has focused on broad reforms and giving voice to people directly affected by the criminal legal system.

Besides pushing for the Board of Pardons to hear more clemency cases, Fetterman spearheaded the elimination of fees for pardon applications, as a way to lower the barrier for people to clear low-level and drug offenses off their records.

Fetterman has also made a concerted effort to place people affected by the criminal legal system in positions of authority. He appointed Brandon Flood, who developed a distinguished career after his release from prison, as secretary of the Board of Pardons. Wolf signed off on a pardon for Flood shortly before Flood took over as secretary.

Fetterman hired George Trudel and Naomi Blount, two people formerly sentenced to life without parole, to serve as commutation specialists to help process applications and act as liaisons with people seeking clemency. Trudel and Blount both were released from prison last year after their sentences were commuted.

More than anyone in the state, [Fetterman] has resurrected the commutation’s process and provided a fair gateway to release for geriatric prisoners who have served decades in prison and have rehabilitated themselves and pose no threat to public safety,” Holbrook said. “He has met with communities most impacted by not just mass incarceration but also harm and violence and he’s listened to people and made principled positions.” 

Beyond his official role, Fetterman has been a vocal advocate for legalizing marijuana. He has touted the economic revenues the state could reap from legalization but has also acknowledged the disproportionate effect that prohibition has had on communities of color. Shapiro had initially opposed legalization but changed his position late last year and now says he supports it.

Fetterman from the beginning has positioned himself as a progressive politician and for the most part when it comes to criminal justice reform has lived up to it,” Holbrook said. “His policies also appear to be strongly driven by personal conviction and public safety.”

Fetterman declined The Appeal’s request for comment.

The Democratic primary is not until May 2022, but it is likely both men will announce their plans to run for the office, if they intend to do so, by the end of next year or at the very beginning of 2022.