Political ads and social media attacks by opponents of Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman have sought to portray Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor as dangerously soft on crime, but some of the claims stretch the facts:
- Dr. Mehmet Oz, Fetterman’s Republican opponent, claims Fetterman wants to “eliminate life sentences for murderers.” That’s not accurate. Fetterman has said he wants to eliminate mandatory life sentences for people convicted of second-degree murder.
- Oz says Fetterman wants to release a third of all prisoners. Fetterman agreed with a statement, which he attributed to the state’s former corrections secretary, that Pennsylvania could release a third of its inmates without compromising public safety. But Fetterman’s spokesman says he “does not support releasing 1/3 of all inmates.”
- The Republican National Committee claims Fetterman wants to “legalize heroin.” Fetterman in 2015 said he wants to “decriminalize” all drugs — which is different from legalizing them.
Criminal justice reform has been at the forefront of Fetterman’s priorities as an elected official.
Fetterman proudly boasts about his efforts serving as chair of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons while acting as lieutenant governor and greatly increasing the number of recommended commutations of life sentences. He talks about needing to transition away from mass incarceration and toward “redemption and forgiveness and renewal.” He’s long been a proponent of “legalizing weed.”
Fetterman’s positions on crime are unapologetically progressive, but ads and social media posts from Oz and Oz’s supporters push those positions beyond what Fetterman has proposed. Oz and Fetterman face off in the Nov. 8 general election to replace Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who is not seeking reelection.
Life Sentences for Murder
Two recent ads paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and approved by the Oz campaign make the claim that Fetterman wants to “eliminate life sentences for murderers.” But that’s misleading.
As the articles cited in the ads make clear, Fetterman has advocated eliminating mandatory life sentences without parole for those who commit second-degree murder. So, he’s not talking about all murders, and he’s not seeking to eliminate life sentences as an option for second-degree murders, but rather to give judges discretion in sentencing — if a judge deems it appropriate. (One of the ads from the NRSC includes text on the screen saying Fetterman would “Eliminate Automatic Life Sentences for Murderers.” That’s closer to the truth, though the narrator drops the “automatic” qualifier and says only that Fetterman would “eliminate life sentences for murderers.”)
“More than 1,000 people are sitting in jail right now on what amounts to a death sentence despite never having taken a life,” Fetterman said in February 2021. “That’s not because a judge thought the sentence was deserved. It’s because a one-size-fits-all law makes it mandatory. Any reasonable person who looks at the unfairness of these sentences will acknowledge the need for change.”
Fetterman cited a report from Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity. “Unlike almost every other crime, second-degree murder – often called ‘felony murder’ – does not describe an act but a situation: it applies when someone dies related to a felony,” the report said. “In Pennsylvania, that felony is defined as committing, attempting to commit, or fleeing from an act of robbery, burglary, kidnapping, rape, or arson.”
According to Pennsylvania law, that felony also includes people who are accomplices to those crimes.
“These folks are not Hannibal Lecter,” Fetterman said during a town hall with prison reform advocates in June 2021. “These are individuals that may have been involved in a bad decision, terrible mistake, or something that they had no idea was going to occur.”
Pennsylvania’s mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole for second-degree or felony murder is a bit of a national outlier.
A report in March from the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocating an overhaul of the criminal justice system, said Pennsylvania was one of eight states that have a mandatory life sentence without parole for felony murder convictions for adults. Another 15 states mandate life in prison without parole for some felony murder cases, the report states.
According to the Sentencing Project, about a quarter of inmates serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania were convicted of felony murder.
The Oz ads say Fetterman’s position on eliminating mandatory life sentences without parole for second-degree murder “mak[es] us less safe.” However, the Sentencing Project says, “Felony murder laws have not significantly reduced felonies nor lowered the number of felonies that become deadly” and that they adversely impact “people of color, young people, and women.”
A recent ad from the Senate Leadership Fund hews a little closer to the facts, but still gets it wrong.
The ad claims Fetterman would “end life sentences for felony murder,” while displaying a quote it attributes to our fact-checking colleagues at PolitiFact: “… Fetterman’s position in favor of eliminating life sentences for second-degree murder…”
The quote from PolitiFact refers to another article, which makes clear that Fetterman opposed mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole for second-degree murder. That’s an important distinction that’s missing in the ad. (PolitiFact rated as “false” the claim that Fetterman wants to “eliminate life sentences for murderers.” PolitiFact concluded that Fetterman “has called for reversing Pennsylvania’s law that mandates life-without-parole sentences for second-degree murder, or so-called felony murder, for defendants who are accessories in a killing.”)
‘One-Third of Prisoners’
One of the NRSC ads also claims that Fetterman would “release one-third of prisoners.” The narrator later says, “Emptying our prisons means more hardened criminals on the street.”
Oz also posted an ad to his Twitter account on July 18, claiming Fetterman “wants to release one-third of dangerous criminals back into our communities.”
John Fetterman on crime: crazier than you think. pic.twitter.com/0xmMnUU9fI
— Dr. Mehmet Oz (@DrOz) July 18, 2022
As backup, the TV ad cites a May 30, 2020, tweet from Fetterman:
Fetterman referenced that same quote in a July 20, 2020, tweet that said, “Our Corrections Secretary has said we could relaxes 1/3 of our inmates and not make anyone less safe. What if we directed those savings into our state schools?”
Fetterman attributes the quote to then-Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, who was nominated for the post in 2010 by then-Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, and renominated in 2015 by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat. When the Philadelphia Department of Prisons hired Wetzel as a consultant, a city press release noted that Wetzel oversaw “the first prison population reduction in more than four decades.”
In an online panel discussion on “Second Chances,” posted to YouTube on Oct. 7, 2020, Fetterman said he “agree[d] with” Wetzel’s purported comment.
Fetterman, Oct. 7, 2020: I was on a panel with Secretary Wetzel earlier before the pandemic hit, and he said something remarkable that I agree with. He said we could reduce our prison population by a third and not make anyone less safe in Pennsylvania. And that’s a profound statement. Think about that, our corrections budget is around $3.2 billion. You reduce it by a third, you’re talking, what, conservatively $900 million a year that could be spent on our schools and our roads, on our broadband network, you name it. And we’re spending it warehousing people. Statistically we know, we age out of crime. We age out of crime. And the recidivism rate for juvenile lifers is, what, less than 1%? It’s astronomically small.
We couldn’t locate the Wetzel quote that Fetterman referenced in his tweets. But we did find a July 17 opinion piece for Penn Live co-written by Wetzel and Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. The two encouraged policymakers to visit prisons to learn about them from “people on the ground.”
“They will meet many people that do not need to be there,” Wetzel and King wrote. “Yes, there are some dangerous people behind bars, but there are many others who no longer need to be incarcerated, either because they have been rehabilitated, were sentenced too harshly initially or because they’ve grown old or sick. By 2030, one-third of people in prison will be aged 55 and older — a population of more than 400,000.
“There are many people who simply no longer pose a threat to public safety and whose continued incarceration is wasting money that could be used on programs or personnel to reduce crime,” Wetzel and King wrote. “Allowing our prisons to turn into nursing homes isn’t tough on crime, it’s stupid, expensive — and it also makes us less safe, wasting resources that can be used on more effective crime reduction measures.”
“I’ll say this: If you think Red should have died in prison in Shawshank Redemption, don’t vote for me,” Fetterman told Rolling Stone, referring to the movie character played by Morgan Freeman. “If you think that there are ample circumstances where redemption is possible, where a second chance is appropriate, then vote for me, because that’s what I want. We could reduce our prison population by a third, not make anyone less safe, and bank that $900 million, 1 billion in savings and reinvest that in our public education system. I mean, that makes a lot of sense to me, and I don’t think that’s controversial at all.”
But Fetterman campaign spokesman Joe Calvello told Fox News Digital that’s not the same as wanting to release a third of all inmates.
“In all the tweets and statements you’re referencing, John does not say he supports releasing one-third of Pennsylvania’s inmates,” Calvello said. “And John does not support releasing 1/3 of all inmates.”
The claims that Fetterman wants to release a third of prisoners are sometimes combined with Fetterman’s quote, “I’m trying to get as many folks out as we can.”
The quote comes from a Politico profile of Fetterman in April 2021.
Politico, April 16, 2021: [Richard] Garland, an ex-gang member who now works with at-risk youth as an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, asks Fetterman, “How can I help you to keep this moving?”
Fetterman tells him: “Whoever you’re mentoring, whoever you’re talking to—get their shit in yesterday. And I’ll do my best to expedite it as fast as we can because I’m trying to get as many folks out as we can.” He repeatedly stresses the urgency at hand, reminding Garland that his term ends soon: “We have 1.75 years.”
As lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, Fetterman chairs the state’s Board of Pardons, which considers clemency applications from inmates serving life sentences, and makes recommendations to the governor. With Fetterman as chair, the board of pardons has recommended far more commutations of life sentences than in the years prior to Fetterman assuming that role.
In the past four years, the board has recommended 50 commutations, and Wolf granted 47 of them, according to statistics published by the Board of Pardons. In the four years prior to Fetterman becoming lieutenant governor, the board recommended the commutation of just six life sentences. “Since 2019, they’ve recommended more citizens for commutation than in the past 25 years combined,” Fetterman’s campaign website boasts.
“One of the things I believe in most strongly is the power of a second chance, and as the chair of the Board of Pardons in Pennsylvania, delivering that has been one of the things that I’m most proud of,” Fetterman says in a video on his campaign website.
The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, misleadingly tweeted that claims Fetterman wants to “legalize heroin.”
Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman wants to “legalize heroin” and fund “safe injection sites” (read: taxpayer-funded drug dens) pic.twitter.com/rKLUTSKE2W
— RNC Research (@RNCResearch) August 18, 2022
The quotation marks around the claim that Fetterman wants to “legalize heroin” were from the RNC, which uses Fetterman’s words out of context.
In an online interview posted on Jan. 24, 2018, Fetterman talked about how he had long been warning about the need to address the opioid epidemic. (Starting at the seven-minute mark.)
Fetterman, Jan. 24, 2018: I’ll never forget the meeting I that had down at the DSCC [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] where they evaluate you and your campaign and your candidacy, and one of the things I kept talking about was the opioid crisis. And they were just like, “Wait a second, what are you talking about, you want to legalize heroin? And why do care about these things?” And like, well, because as a small-town mayor, I’ve seen this firsthand and I know what a critical issue it is. And it’s only going to get worse and worse and worse. And now two years later you have the governor of our state declaring an absolute emergency on it. And we aren’t even worried about heroin anymore. It’s that we’re worried about the fentanyl and the carfentanil and things like that.
So this was not Fetterman stating as his position that he wanted to legalize heroin. Rather, Fetterman was relating a story about talking to leaders of the DSCC about making the opioid epidemic a priority of his, and DSCC officials interpreting that as him wanting to legalize heroin. Although he has not spoken about legalizing heroin, Fetterman has supported legalizing marijuana. And in a 2015 interview with The Nation, Fetterman said he supported “decriminalizing [drugs] across the board.”
The Nation, Sept. 25, 2015: What are some key issues you’re focused on?
Fetterman: I’m pro legalizing marijuana, but I go even further than some of my colleagues because I’m for decriminalizing across the board. I see it as a public-health issue, not a criminal issue. I’ve seen first hand for the last 14 years the effects it has on families, I’ve seen people overdosing —
The Nation: Is there a meth crisis in the state?
Fetterman: Heroin has claimed, as far as I know, at least 36 lives this year in overdoses. I’ve seen three people who’ve overdosed get the shard of the narc in their arms and it’s jarring. There was a huge car accident in front of our home earlier this summer. They shot up in a parking lot and crashed. It hasn’t worked. This isn’t me. It’s not my opinion. It’s a fact.
The Nation: The War on Drugs?
Fetterman: The War on Drugs, yes, the War on Drugs. If we start treating it as a public-health issue, with more compassion, without the criminal element, I think it’ll be a lot better for this society and a lot of these other issues like violence and public safety are also going to improve as a result, and we’ll also be taking a big step in taking down the prison-industrial complex.
But decriminalizing isn’t the same thing as legalizing.
As the FindLaw legal dictionary explains, “Decriminalization means that a state repealed or amended its laws to make certain acts criminal, but no longer subject to prosecution. In the marijuana context, this means individuals caught with small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption won’t be prosecuted and won’t subsequently receive a criminal record or a jail sentence.” Instead, offenders may face civil fines, drug education or drug treatment. But possessing large quantities of a drug, producing or selling the drug would still be prosecuted criminally.
As the RNC post said, Fetterman has spoken in support of “safe injection sites.” In his 2018 online interview, Fetterman said (starting at the 8:13 mark), “I think it’s important that we as a society get in front of it. I think it’s important that we as a society have all the options on the table, including needle exchange, which is only technically legal in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and even safe injection sites that are being considered like, say, in Philadelphia, where, like, you have tens of thousands of people dying across this country and when you have these kind of things and in this kind of crisis, you have to have everything on the table that has a chance of making it better, in my opinion.”
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