The state of Pennsylvania is using a particularly harsh form of punishment all too frequently: sentencing people to life in prison without the possibility of parole ― or, as critics call it, “death by incarceration,” according to a new report.
“A Way Out: Abolishing Death By Incarceration in Pennsylvania,” a detailed report published this week, finds that there are 5,346 people serving out life sentences without parole in Pennsylvania. Only Florida ― a state with roughly twice the population and twice the number of people in prison ― has more people currently serving such sentences.
In Philadelphia County alone, 2,694 people are serving life sentences without parole ― more than in any other U.S. county and any single country in the world. More than 1 in 10 people in the U.S. serving out such sentences are in Pennsylvania.
The report by the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Center, which seeks to end class- and race-based mass incarceration in the U.S., also uncovered alarming racial disparities regarding these sentences. Black people in Pennsylvania are serving out life sentences without parole at 18 times the rate white people are. Latinx people are serving out these sentences at a rate five times that of whites. In Philadelphia, 1 in every 294 black residents is serving a sentence that means spending the remainder of their life permanently caged.
Young people disproportionately receive life sentences, the report notes, as most lifers were convicted and sentenced when they were 25 years old or younger. This is particularly disturbing because scientific research suggests that the adolescent brain continues to develop into the mid-20s ― something the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized by considering juveniles less culpable than adults for crimes and by banning the mandatory sentencing of juveniles to life without parole for crimes other than homicide.
Incarcerating people is financially costly, but incarcerating them for the vast majority of their lives raises those costs even higher, according to the report. In Pennsylvania, more than 70 percent of people currently serving life sentences without parole are over 40 and nearly half of them are over 50 ― meaning that incarcerating elderly inmates costs the state an estimated $86 million per year.
“This report presents a definitive portrait of a punishment that is archaic, cruel, unjustified, and indefensible,” said Bret Grote, co-author of the report and legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “Death by incarceration sentences do not keep the public safer. The human and economic costs are staggering and growing by the year, as thousands of aging, rehabilitated men and women are locked away needlessly.”
Death by incarceration sentences do not keep the public safer. The human and economic costs are staggering and growing by the year.Bret Grote, legal director, Abolitionist Law Center
Over the last several decades, there has been a dramatic growth in the inmate population in the U.S. ― a 500 percent surge since the 1980s. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. is now home to more than 20 percent of the world’s prisoners. And even when not caged, 1 in every 37 U.S. adults is under some form of correctional supervision.
Concurrently, the number of people serving life-without-parole sentences in the United States has expanded dramatically, from about 12,000 in 1992 to over 53,000 today. Pennsylvania, too, saw its population of prisoners who are serving out the sentence explode, from fewer than 500 people in the 1970s to more than 5,000 in 2017. And while the state saw a 21 percent decline in violent crime between 2003 and 2015, the population of people sentenced to life without parole rose by 40 percent between 2003 and 2016.
The United States is an outlier among Western nations in its use of harsh life-without-parole sentences. Only 10 European nations allow such sentences to be imposed. Australia, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom ― the countries with the next-highest numbers of prisoners serving life sentences without parole ― collectively have less than 150 offenders serving out these sentences.
Life without parole is generally expected to be reserved for serious crimes like murder and violent sexual offenses. But in many states, like Pennsylvania, the sentence can be imposed on offenders who did not intend to kill a person, or on accomplices who did not know that the offender intended to kill, under so-called “felony murder” doctrines. In Pennsylvania, the report’s authors found that almost one-quarter of people with life-without-parole sentences fell into this group ― they did not act with the intent to take a life.
Beyond the significant cost of permanently housing inmates in prison for the course of their lives until they die of natural causes, critics of life-without-parole sentences say that cutting off parole eligibility for a prisoner is unusually harsh because it assumes that their capacity for rehabilitation and transformation is static and predictable at the time of their sentencing. It also deprives prisoners and their loved ones of any hope for a brighter future. When a person is sentenced to life without parole, there are very few reliable paths for them to ever live free again.
In Pennsylvania, the only way out of prison for lifers without parole is the rare overturned conviction or commutation of a sentence by the governor, or ultimately, death behind bars. For decades, people received commutations more regularly, but they have steadily declined since the 1980s. Meanwhile, more inmates serving life sentences without parole are dying in prison every year.
Legislation has been introduced in Pennsylvania to grant parole eligibility to all prisoners serving a life sentence after 15 years and to apply the relief retroactively. The bill has picked up some co-sponsors, but it hasn’t passed.
District attorneys offices can also play a vital role in reducing this form of punishment, according to the report. In Philadelphia, Larry Krasner, the district attorney who has shaken up the city’s criminal justice system by pursuing policies aimed at ending mass incarceration, is considering reviewing various excessive sentences, including mandatory life-without-parole sentences.
“Life without the possibility of parole is a senseless punishment,” said David Menschel, an Oregon-based criminal defense attorney and activist. “It ignores the fact that people change, sometimes profoundly. Why would we decide when someone is 15 or 20 or 25 who they are going to be when they’re 45 or 50? Why not just put off that decision and give the parole board the opportunity to discover who they become?”