The long-simmering debate over giving convicted criminals early releases from prison and second chances has boiled over into this year’s U.S. Senate races as voters view rising lawlessness and violent crime as major problems.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman have been criticized for serving on their states’ pardon boards, which recommended rewarding prisoners for good behavior behind bars with reduced prison sentences.
It is part of the Republicans’ broader strategy to tap voter anxiety over a national crime wave and pin the blame on President Biden and Democrats in Congress, who are defending fragile House and Senate majorities in the midterm elections.
Speaking on the floor of the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, put a fine point on the issue by saying the Democratic vision is wrong for the nation.
“One especially damaging myth is the liberal notion that making our country kinder means having weaker public safety, weaker justice for criminals and weaker borders,” Mr. McConnell said. “There is nothing compassionate about tolerating or even encouraging anarchy at the border, violence in our streets and a steady erosion of public safety.
“It is neither fair nor compassionate, not to any Americans, least of all to the vulnerable people Democrats say they’re helping,” he said.
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Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, is hammering home a similar message. Polls show him trailing Mr. Fetterman, who has been a vocal advocate for pardons, reprieves, commutations and executive clemency.
Mr. Oz, a political newcomer and TV celebrity doctor, blasted out an email this week slamming Mr. Fetterman for joining four other members of the board of pardons in unanimously recommending the release of a man convicted in 1993 in the killing of a small-time drug dealer.
“While the board’s decision was unanimous, others felt that this was the wrong decision,” the Oz campaign email said. “Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office said, ‘there’s no doubt that Eric Eisen directed the murder of Daniel Bostedo and participated in the murder of Daniel Bostedo.’”
The condemnation of Mr. Fetterman included a comment from the victim’s brother, Thomas, who said, “He gets to leave prison, and the only way I can visit my brother is up the hill at his gravestone.
“Nobody reached out to the [Bostedo] family to ask their opinion or anything like that. Not saying Danny was a saint. But did he deserve to die? No, he didn’t deserve that.”
In Pennsylvania, the board of pardons makes a nonbinding recommendation to the governor, who has the final say.
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Mr. Oz also has an “Inmates for Fetterman” website that catalogs stories of other prisoners who have benefited from the pardon board’s decisions. In some cases, they did not sit well with families of the victims.
Ms. Cortez Masto has come under similar criticism for her work on the Nevada Board of Pardons Commissioners during her stint as state attorney general from 2007 through 2014. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm for Senate Republicans, is running a Spanish-language ad that says she voted “more than 75 times to minimize the sentences of violent criminals.”
The Cortez Masto campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The campaign recently told The Nevada Independent that the attack was “demonstrably false” and pointed out that she served under Republican Govs. Jim Gibbons and Brian Sandoval, who also had to sign off on decisions.
The Cortez Masto campaign told the news website that the Democrat voted to commute the sentences of violent criminals 35 times, roughly 11 percent of the 321 votes she cast.
Mr. Fetterman is standing his ground.
“You have an opportunity to really make a big impact on second chances,” Mr. Fetterman told supporters at a campaign stop this year, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. “That, to me, means everything. You have an opportunity to decide what direction we take in our society. Should you pay for the rest of your life for a mistake that you made if you were addicted or you were young or you were in poverty?”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm for Senate Republicans, said Ms. Cortez Masto and Mr. Fetterman are the liberal “architects” of bad policies that are leading to rampant crime.
“Democrats’ position on crime is to make it worse in the name of faux progressivism,” said NRSC spokesperson T.W. Arrighi. “Voters want a return to law and order.”
Patrick Burgwinkle, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, countered that the “false attacks will not distract voters from Republicans’ deeply flawed candidates” and their far-right agenda.
The Republican Senate campaigns and their allies are issuing the warnings amid increased concerns about crime, including in Las Vegas, Philadelphia and other cities where the number of homicides has ticked up.
A Gallup poll released this year found increasing concerns about crime and violence. For the first time since 2016, a majority (53%) said they worry a “great deal about crime,” the pollsters said.
The crime wave sparked intense debates over the role of police departments and calls for a rethink of the criminal justice system, including how best to address the revolving door and recidivism rates.
While prison reform advocates say inmates are capable of rehabilitation and in some cases deserving of fresh starts, the tough-on-crime crowd says the severity of some crimes forfeits the right to a second chance.
“With sky-high crime across Pennsylvania, it’s important for voters to know John Fetterman is putting criminals before victims and our communities,” said Brittany Yanick, an Oz campaign spokesperson.
Ms. Yanick shared a video in which Mr. Fetterman touted his work on the pardon board as a badge of honor.
“As chair of the board of pardons, I’m proud to say my administration has conferred more second chances than every administration in Penn history combined,” he said in the clip.
Indeed, Mr. Fetterman has refused to apologize for contributing to the early releases of prisoners or for hiring a pair of paid staffers who had been convicted of murder and spent decades in prison before their sentences were commuted.
Kevin Ring, president of FAMM, a group that advocates for a more fair and effective justice system, said the attacks against Mr. Fetterman and Ms. Cortez Masto are unfortunate. He said the attacks are products of the “political silly season” in which candidates are grasping at ways to address the crime issue.
“What is unfortunate about it is for all the reasonable debates that can be had about bail reform and the revolving door and people who commit repeated crimes, these clemency cases involve people who have served decades in prison,” he said. “These are the least likely to re-offend.
“These attacks are really just you can’t possibly believe someone who did something like this deserves a second chance,” he said. “Fetterman, to his credit, says, ‘I think they do deserve a second chance.’”