Hundreds from across Pennsylvania rallied inside the Rotunda of the Capitol in Harrisburg recently to offer a solution for resolving an enormously expensive problem in state law that plagues the state’s prison system
That expensive problem arises from Pennsylvania’s Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentences that keep inmates in prison until they die.
Every year Pennsylvania’s prison system spends “roughly $460 million” to incarcerate LWOP inmates, stated a report released last year by the Abolitionist Law Center.
Pennsylvania’s LWOP population of nearly 5,460 is the second largest in America. That population ranges from five prisoners under the age of 20 to 706 over the age of 65, according to the latest statistics available from the state’s Department of Correction.
The solution to the high costs (tangible and intangible) associated with LWOP supported by the participants in the Capitol Rotunda rally is passage of legislation pending in both the state House and Senate.
That legislation would permit LWOP prisoners to seek release from prison through review by the state’s Parole Board – a process currently barred by state law.
Supporters of that legislation, including the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration that staged the rally, are quick to note that they do not seek automatic/mass release of LWOP prisoners, only a mechanism to permit LWOP prisoners the opportunity convince the Parole Board that they merit release.
Supporters want a ‘second chance’ for LWOP prisoners.
Pennsylvania state legislators supporting changes regarding LWOP attended the rally. Those legislators included House members and Senators, Democrats and Republicans.
State Senator Sharif Street of Philadelphia, a leader in legislative efforts to change LWOP and initiate other criminal justice system reforms, addressed the often-overlooked financial costs associated with life-time imprisonment.
For example, the annual costs for inmates over 55 is twice and sometimes three times higher than the $42,000-per-year cost for non-elderly inmates. State prison system officials acknowledge the monthly expenditure of $3.2 million on medications needed for elderly inmates.
“We’d do better putting that money into schools and lower taxes for people who are struggling financially,” Senator Street said. “Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system is bad!”
The cost of lifetime incarceration for a person sentenced to LWOP at age 25 was estimated at $3.6-million in that Abolitionist Law Center study.
Nearly 75 percent of Pennsylvania’s LWOP prisoners are black and Latino. And half of Pennsylvania’s LWOP prisoners come from just one of the state’s 67 counties: Philadelphia.
Another legislator who spoke, State Representative Movita Johnson-Harrell of Philadelphia, who once worked in the victim’s services division of Philly’s DA’s Office, recounted her father’s murder, the false arrest of her stepfather for a murder and the slaying of her 18-year-old son in a mistaken identity shooting.
“I was able to forgive the two boys who killed my son,” Rep. Johnson-Harrell said noting the impact of poverty and despair on fatal violence. “If we create certain circumstances, we create a certain outcome.”
Supporters of LWOP emphasize its necessity for providing ‘justice’ to the families of murder victims.
However, the presence of Rep. Johnson-Harrell and others at the rally who’ve lost loved ones to murder challenge the contention advanced by LWOP supporters that all family members of murder victims support LWOP and other harsh punishments.
Some Coalition members have experienced the dual trauma of losing a family member to murder and losing another family member to a LWOP sentence. Rally emcee, Lorraine Haw of Philadelphia, lost a brother to gun violence and her son is serving a LWOP sentence.
“I’m a ‘dual victim.’ People say we don’t exist,” Haw declared during the rally. “We need to teach love and forgiveness. Let us heal together.”
Crystal Lopez of Philadelphia attended the rally to support relief for her husband Rick who is in the 23rd-year of a LWOP sentence.
“It’s inhumane,” Lopez said criticizing LWOP sentencing. “People change. People deserve a second chance.”
Another LWOP statistic frequently overlooked is that nearly one-quarter of Pennsylvania’s LWOP prisoners did not kill anyone. This category of inmates were sentenced for their involvement in a crime where an accomplice killed someone.
A few speakers at the Coalition’s rally were former juvenile lifers, persons sentenced to LWOP for crimes committed before their 18th birthday. Pennsylvania once led the nation in imprisoning nearly 500 juvenile lifers until a U.S. Supreme Court ruling a few years ago that deemed the practice unconstitutional.
One of those former juvenile lifers, Kempis ‘Ghani’ Songster, spent 30-years in prison before his release and now works on prison reform and doing “all he can” to steer youth away from crime.
Songster said, “If mass incarceration stopped violence, America would be the safest place on earth.”