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Opinion: Governor Parson, grant clemency to Patty Prewitt

As COVID-19 cases rise in our state, so too do they in our prison system. The consequences have been devastating for the incarcerated and Department of Corrections staff. There have been more than 6,500 COVID-19 cases among prison inmates and staff. Thirty-six Missouri prison inmates and four DOC staffers have died from complications of COVID-19, with the majority of those deaths occurring in just the last month. While the DOC has highlighted its attempts to contain the spread of the virus, Gov. Mike Parson can play a singular role in stopping the spread and saving lives by using his clemency power with discretion and common sense. 

Last year, we wrote about the enormous backlog of clemency petitions that Gov. Parson inherited from previous administrations and urged him to act. Clemency, we pointed out, offers a unique opportunity for the governor to correct injustice, demonstrate mercy, and stop the wasteful spending of our tax dollars on the incarceration of those who pose no threat to public safety. We were glad to see that the governor exercised this constitutional power for the first time earlier this year. However, the backlog has now grown to nearly 3,700 petitions. Reducing the backlog today would have the dual impact of not only correcting instances of injustice but also saving lives. In the interest of public safety — both from COVID-19 and from crime — the governor would be wise to focus on those who have a high risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19 and a low risk of recidivism.

Seventy-one-year-old Patty Prewitt sits precisely at this crossroads that calls for the governor’s attention and action. Prewitt has served 34 years in prison after being convicted for the murder of her husband, a crime for which she has unwaveringly maintained her innocence. In April, we delivered a letter to the governor signed by a bipartisan group of more than 50 of our House and Senate colleagues urging the governor to grant Prewitt clemency. The letter highlighted the flaws in the investigation and trial that led to her conviction, the strong support of the Prewitt children for her release, and Prewitt’s exemplary record and service to others during her three decades behind bars. This letter preceded the dramatic spike in cases experienced by Missouri prisons over the summer that continues today.

In light of Prewitt’s age and history of respiratory problems, she is at high risk of death if she contracted COVID-19. Meanwhile, according to the DOC’s own metrics, she has the lowest risk of reoffending possible. She has a bedroom waiting for her at her daughter’s home and would have the support of her family who desperately wants their mother home. Her current clemency petition has been pending for a decade. With COVID-19 cases and deaths increasing by the day in Missouri, our appeal to the governor to act is more urgent than ever.  

In his victory speech on election night, Gov. Parson emphasized his common sense approach to governing and noted the importance of his Christian values. Granting clemency to Patty Prewitt fulfills both these expressed priorities. Especially today, when there is such intense need in our state, it makes no sense at all for Missouri to continue to spend significant taxpayer dollars to keep Patty Prewitt behind bars. Indeed, Gov. Parson could, with the stroke of a pen, demonstrate the biblical virtue of mercy to a family who has lost so much. The governor’s common sense and compassion would unite a mother and her children for Christmas for the first time in 35 years.  Gov. Parson, please show us moral leadership: Grant clemency to Patty Prewitt and those like her who pose no risk to public safety.