Pennsylvania adds muscle to reviewing convictions
Law enforcement office starting integrity unit to check court sentences for mistakes
HARRISBURG, (AP) — Pennsylvania’s top law enforcement office is starting a conviction integrity unit to review past convictions for mistakes that might result in them being overturned, officials said Wednesday.
Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser, the former chief public defender in Cambria County and former Somerset County district attorney, will lead the unit in Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office.
The unit is designed to provide county district attorneys with the resources to analyze past convictions, Shapiro’s office said. Only Philadelphia has a unit devoted to reviewing convictions, while some counties have an informal process for reevaluating cases, Shapiro’s office said.
“We’re striving for justice day in and day out, not just about the cases we’re dealing with today and tomorrow, but the cases we dealt with yesterday,” Shapiro said in a video statement.
The system, Shapiro said, is in need of reform. He did not elaborate on that in the video statement, but added that it is “why we think this unit is so necessary.”
Still, the idea could raise jurisdictional objections from county district attorneys.
The move comes as Shapiro runs for reelection and as reformers have aggressively questioned Pennsylvania’s criminal justice practices.
In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner has secured exonerations in 12 cases since taking office in 2018.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who chairs the Board of Pardons, has encouraged people with nonviolent marijuana-related convictions to apply for a pardon and gone prison-to-prison urging inmates serving life sentences to apply for early release. The board is seeing bigger caseloads since Fetterman took office last year.
In the Capitol, Gov. Tom Wolf has urged lawmakers to reform the state’s probation system, including putting a limit on the length of time a person can be on probation and limiting the circumstances under which someone on probation can go back to jail.
District attorneys’ offices said they were just finding out about Shapiro’s announcement Wednesday.
In a statement, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association said the integrity of convictions is a priority for every district attorney and that its executive committee would meet with Lazzari-Strasiser in the coming days.
“At that time, we expect to begin to hear more details and formally start the conversation on what the unit is, how it will work, what our role will be and the complex jurisdictional issues it presents,” the association’s executive director, Lindsay Vaughan, said in the statement.