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April 7, 2019

Shouldn't every criminal justice institution include leaders with past criminal justice involvement?

XO63XMY22BDO5P3YXLAZM4LLDMIn his landmark book, "Criminal Sentences: Law Without Order," Judge Marvin Frankel famously urged the creation of a "Commission on Sentencing" which would include "lawyers, judges, penologists, and criminologists, ... sociologists, psychologists, business people, artists, and, lastly for emphasis, former or present prison inmates."  As Judge Frankel goes on to explain, having such persons on a sentencing commission "merely recognizes what took too long to become obvious — that the recipients of penal 'treatment' must have relevant things to say about it."

Judge Frankel's astute comments from nearly half a century ago came to mind (along with the question that is the title of this post) on a lovely Sunday morning when I saw this lovely local article headlined "Freed from prison nine years ago, Brandon Flood is new secretary of Pa.’s pardon board."  Here are excerpts:

This column will probably come as something of a shock to all the people in Harrisburg who only know Brandon Flood — a bow-tied, bespectacled policy wonk with sartorial flair — as the persona that he laughingly calls “Urkel Brandon,” in a homage to one of TV’s most famous nerds.  Flood, now 36, readily admits most folks who know him from nearly a decade as a legislative aide or lobbyist will be shocked to learn of his past that includes boot camp for juvenile offenders, a physical scuffle with Harrisburg’s then-police chief, and finally felony convictions and two lengthy prison stints for dealing crack cocaine and carrying an unlicensed gun.

But starting last week, Flood’s turnaround saga has become a talking point and a mission statement for his new job as secretary of the five-member Pennsylvania Board of Pardons  — anchoring one leg of a broader push in Harrisburg for criminal justice reform, aimed at giving more convicted felons a chance for clemency or to wipe their slate clean with a pardon.  What makes Flood’s appointment even more remarkable is that — to steal a phrase from TV infomercial lore — he’s not just Pennsylvania’s new top pardons administrator, he’s also a client.  Gov. Wolf signed off on Flood’s own board-approved pardon, erasing his past convictions, just a few weeks before Flood stepped in as secretary.

Taking a break last Monday during his first day on the job for a sit-down interview, the soft-spoken Flood said a number of new initiatives — to not only call attention to Pennsylvania’s pardon process but also to make it easier to apply for one — will hopefully show former inmates that the state is more focused on rewarding good post-prison behavior.  “If they see this [a pardon] as a viable option, they will continue to be productive citizens,” Flood said, who plans to use his own story as a powerful example of that. “They will see there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Flood’s hiring was the brainchild of Pennsylvania’s new lieutenant governor, John Fetterman.  Policy-oriented, progressive and looking for areas where he can make a difference in the oft-neglected No. 2 slot, the burly, black-shirted Braddock ex-mayor has honed in on his designated role as chairman of the Board of Pardons.  Fetterman told me that Flood is “a singularly unique person to have in order help remake the process ... which is only the only remedy for anyone in Pennsylvania who wants to move forward with their lives in this way.”

Flood’s arrival helps mark the beginning of one era in Pennsylvania criminal justice and arguably the end of another.  It was exactly 25 years ago that a convicted murderer named Reginald McFadden was granted his freedom by a Board of Pardons led by then-Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, who was also running for governor that year.  McFadden almost immediately killed two people and raped a third, and the case, with its overtones of the infamous Willie Horton affair, was cited by experts as a reason for Singel’s defeat that fall.  The political fallout dramatically changed Pennsylvania’s pardon math. Critics (including the man Fetterman ousted in a 2018 primary, ex-Lt. Gov. Mike Stack) came to say that the state’s pardon system was “broken” in an era of skyrocketing mass incarceration.  Commutations of life sentences ground to a virtual halt, post-McFadden, while pardons for lesser crimes slowed as long backlogs and a confusing process discouraged applicants....

For Fetterman, who hails his close working relationship with Wolf on criminal justice reform, Flood’s hiring is symbolic of both down-to-earth pardon reforms — a $63 application fee was eliminated last month, and the board is looking to digitize the application process and possibly open satellite offices in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and eventually elsewhere — and a bold new attitude.  In December, Wolf granted board-recommended clemency to three life-sentenced inmates — after only signing two in his first 47 months in office.  Fetterman, who’s currently on an all-67-county tour to discuss the possibility of legalizing marijuana, also said he wants a task force to look at granting widespread pardons for past pot-related convictions. “These are simple charges that are damning people’s career possibilities,” he said.

I am so very pleased to see these developments in the Keystone State, especially because I think having a robust parole, commutation and pardon system can play a key role in encouraging persons to return to a law-abiding life after a run-in with the law. Moreover, beyond whatever reforms or actions are led by Brandon Flood, his very appointment to this position serves as an important symbol of redemption and potential.

In line with this state development and with the question in the title of this post, it dawns on me that the US Sentencing Commission has likely never had, over its now 35-year history, any commissioners with any personal history with the criminal justice system. (I am not entirely certain of this assertion, as I do not know everything about the past of the 30 persons here listed as former commissioners.)  Judge Frankel's astute staffing suggestions have not been followed in various ways in the federal system — e.g., I cannot recall any business people or artists on the USSC — but I think the absence of a former offender is especially glaring.

With five(!) open spots on the USSC, and with Prez Trump talking up the importance of "successful reentry and reduced unemployment for Americans with past criminal records... starting right away," now would seem to be an especially opportune time for a USSC appointment of someone with a "past criminal record" in the federal system.  Names like Matthew Charles and Shon Hopwood and Alice Johnson and Kevin Ring immediately come (alphabetically) to mind, but I am sure there are many others who could serve admirably in this role as "recipients of penal 'treatment' [with] relevant things to say about it."  

April 7, 2019 at 01:23 PM | Permalink

Comments

Great point, Doug. There could potentially be a USSC staff position that might also fill this need. Not the same as a voting member of the Commission, a staff member but would have more day-to-day input than only hearing indirectly about incarceration from experts, advocates groups, etc.

Posted by: TJH | Apr 8, 2019 12:52:55 PM

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