This article first appeared in Broad + Liberty.
On March 7, 1994, amid the bloody years of the crack epidemic, 17-year-old Omar Dennis of North Philadelphia had gotten into a fistfight with 21-year-old Chalmos Jones at 20th and York Streets. He lost. Instead of accepting the loss and learning from it, Dennis wrestled an illegal gun from his 15-year-old cousin, Kevin Anderson, and used it to shoot Jones five times in the back, killing him.
For that, Dennis was convicted of first-degree murder following his 18th birthday and given 28 years to life in prison.
But in 2018, Dennis was one of 180 “juvenile lifers” resentenced and summarily released by District Attorney Larry Krasner after the U.S. Supreme Court found that automatic life without parole sentences for juvenile murderers to be unconstitutional. Despite the objections of judges, the fact that Dennis was 18 when sentenced, and court documentation showing that Dennis’ original sentence was 28-years-to-life (not life without parole), Krasner got him released – making good on his campaign pledge to “reduce incarceration.” Whether the District Attorney’s Office notified or consulted with Chalmos Jones’ mother, Loretta Bell, prior to Dennis’ release from prison, is unknown.
(Krasner’s office did not reply to Broad + Liberty’s request to comment on the case.)
Now fast forward to 2022. On December 29th, Omar Dennis fled into a home on the 2500 block of North 18th Street after being observed walking the streets of North Philadelphia with a rifle. Dennis was apprehended by the Philadelphia Police SWAT team after barricading himself in the home — uncomfortably similar to the case of Cpl. James O’Connor, who was murdered by a suspect who had been on the street because the DA’s office refused to request jail time on a recent plea deal and subsequent probation violations.
As a result of his armed barricade with SWAT, Dennis, now 46 years old, was charged with aggravated assault, possession of a firearm for prohibited persons, carrying a firearm without a license, carrying a firearm in public in Philadelphia, possession of an instrument of crime with intent, simple assault, and recklessly endangering another person.
The case of Omar Dennis is yet another example of serious violent crimes that raise questions as to the recklessness of the decarceration movement that has become a cause célèbre by leftist politicians and their wealthy donors. One of the most noteworthy examples of this comes from recently elected Sen. John Fetterman who, as Pennsylvania lieutenant governor, chaired the Board of Pardons (BOP) and helped drive policy for the state Board of Probation and Parole.
During Fetterman’s tenure as chair, the board commissioned two reports (that were) last year released by Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) that recommended the BOP consider merit-based clemency for currently incarcerated second-degree murderers, as well as for the state legislature to reform the law that mandates life sentences without parole for second-degree murder convictions. At the time he commissioned the reports (Fetterman said it was) in a call for “mercy for the deserving and rehabilitated.”
This is not the first time excessive clemency to violent criminals has led to more violence on the streets.
In 2020, also during Fetterman’s term as board chair, Termaine Saulsbury was released from prison early–despite a lengthy criminal history dating back to 2001 including weapons violations, armed robbery, and an attack on correctional officers while serving a sentence in 2016. On November 22, 2022, Saulsbury allegedly shot a gas station clerk in the Bronx, New York. Three days later, as most Americans were preparing for their Thanksgiving dinner, Saulsbury attempted to kill Philadelphia Parking Authority Officer Timothy McKenzie when he calmly walked up behind him and shot him in the head. Both the New York and Philadelphia Police shared video footage of both incidents showing their belief that Saulsbury was the shooter who they believe was the gunman in both instances.
The policies instituted by Krasner and Fetterman remain in place.
During a PLSE press conference on March 1, 2021, Fetterman said the reports documented “the lives that are destroyed” and “the resources that are wasted” due to Pennsylvania’s statute, and that he hoped the reports’ findings would “lead to a conversation” that would free nearly 1,200 people.
“I hope that it could lead to a conversation that would free close to 1,200 people of a legacy that never made sense, that encompasses victims’ input, encompasses their conduct and behavior in prison, it takes a look at the resources that are wasted,” Fetterman said at the time.
As a former law enforcement officer who not only made regular arrests of repeat offenders, but has spent over 17 years suffering from civil disabilities related to being subject to the enforcement of an unconstitutional law – I sympathize with the human need for deserving people to get a second chance. That said, these second chances must be earned. When you murder someone because they hurt your ego as Dennis did, or have demonstrated yourself a repeat offender even while incarcerated, as Saulsbury did – then anyone advocating for your release is not promoting criminal justice reform. They are showing how dangerous it is to politicize it.
Considering how violent the first week of 2023 has been in Philadelphia, it may be time for our leaders to return to a more risk-based approach to public safety.