Bruce Norris, who was serving life in a Pennsylvania state prison for his role in a 1975 robbery and murder, died of COVID-19 on Saturday at age 69.
Norris is one of more than 2,300 prisoners across the United States who have died of coronavirus-related illnesses behind bars. What makes Norris' case stand out was that Pennsylvania's Board of Pardons had recommended his sentence be commuted by the governor back in early December. But Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf had not acted on the recommendation. While Norris was awaiting Wolf's mercy, he was infected by his cellmate and died.
Norris, who had expressed regret for his crime, earned a bachelor's degree behind bars. He had been in jail for 45 years.
Wolf's office blamed the process for the governor's failure to act. A spokesperson sent a statement to the Philadelphia Inquirer: "The recommendations are processed by Board staff and then through a thorough legal review before heading to the governor's desk for consideration. Upon receipt of the written recommendations the governor will review each case individually and weigh his decision after factoring in the effect a pardon will have on any victims and the likelihood of the person to re-offend." The spokesperson also complained that while the board had increased the number of applications it was sending through, the governor's office didn't have enough staff to process the applications faster.
That's not the only barrier that keeps inmates in Pennsylvania stuck in jail during a pandemic. The state does not have a law that allows for parole for medical reasons unless a prisoner is dying. A year ago, before COVID-19 actually began its spread, State Corrections Secretary John Wetzel called on lawmakers to consider changes to allow for easier release of elderly and chronically sick inmates if they don't have histories of violence. Wetzel pointed out that the state could save $22 million a year on medical costs if it had a parole system for older or sick inmates.
For Norris, Wolf's signature was the only way out, and he didn't get it in time.
Celeste Trusty, the Pennsylvania State Policy Director for the sentencing reform organization FAMM, sent a letter to Wolf's office urging him to quickly sign the remaining commutation requests the Board of Pardons has sent to him:
As governor, you have the critical tools of reprieve and clemency at your disposal. Utilizing these tools in targeted and innovative ways has the potential to immediately save countless lives and diminish unimaginable suffering for Pennsylvania families.
Wolf announced his 2021 agenda on Friday. His criminal justice proposals include bail and probation reforms that could reduce jail populations. If he's serious, he needs to set aside some time to deal with those commutations too.