New Data: Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Lead the Nation and World in Life Without Parole Sentences
Comprehensive Study Shows that Life Without Parole Sentences in Pennsylvania are Imposed on the Young with Alarming Racial Disparities
(Pittsburgh, PA) Philadelphia County has 2,694 people serving life without parole sentences (LWOP), which is more than any other county in the United States and far more than any other country in the world, according to a new data analysis released today by the Abolitionist Law Center. A Way Out: Abolishing Death By Incarceration in Pennsylvania [Full Report] [Abridged Report] found Pennsylvania has 5,346 people serving LWOP, making the state a national leader in the use of the punishment; only Florida, with twice the population, has more people serving LWOP. State Representative Jason Dawkins and State Senator Sharif Street have filed legislation that would allow parole eligibility for all lifers after 15 years of incarceration.
The report refers to life without parole as “Death by Incarceration” (DBI). Key findings include:
- Most of the people serving DBI were convicted and sentenced when they were 25 or younger, a period of life when brain development and maturation remains ongoing, according to recent neuroscientific research.
- More than 70 percent of those serving DBI are over 40 and nearly half (2,377 people) are over 50. The practice continues even though research shows that criminal activity drops significantly after age 40 and despite the fact that locking up a person over 55 is two to three times more expensive.
- Black Pennsylvanians are serving DBI at a rate more than 18 times higher than that of their white counterparts. Out of Philadelphia’s 2,694 people serving DBI, 84 percent are Black. In Allegheny County, 13 percent of the county’s residents are Black, but constitute 76 percent of those serving DBI sentences (409 out of 541 people).
“This report presents a definitive portrait of a punishment that is archaic, cruel, unjustified, and indefensible,” said Bret Grote, Legal Director of the Abolitionist Law Center and co-author of the report. “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. Fortunately, there is also a rapidly growing movement determined to make parole eligibility for all lifers a reality.”
In all cases involving defendants 18 years of age or older, Pennsylvania law does not allow for individualized consideration of a defendant’s circumstances; instead it mandates automatic DBI sentences to many who never actually killed or intended to kill anyone. As the report states, DBI is “a failed policy predicated upon the fallacy that the trajectory of a person’s life – including their capacity for rehabilitation, transformation, and redemption – can be accurately predicted at the time of sentencing.”
Avis Lee is an example of a person serving a DBI sentence because none of the particulars of her case were taken into consideration at sentencing – and may have made a difference. Ms. Lee has served 38 years of a DBI sentence due to a robbery committed by her brother that tragically went wrong and someone lost his life. Ms. Lee was only 18 years old and had been told by her brother to serve as a look out during a robbery. Ms. Lee had turned to drugs and alcohol after a childhood riddled with sexual abuse, violence, poverty, and the death of her mother. After the shooting, she flagged down a bus and told the driver a man was injured. For more than 25 years, she has had no disciplinary infractions in prison. Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Superior Court agreed to hear her claim that her mandatory life sentence was disproportionate because of her youth. There is hope for Ms. Lee, though not many others.
The Philadelphia DA’s Office is considering reviewing certain cases of excessive sentences, including mandatory life without parole sentences, and will pursue a lesser sentence when legally viable. The trend toward electing reform-oriented, less punitive district attorneys across the country could lead to similar efforts at sentence review being implemented in DA offices on a national scale.
The Abolitionist Law Center is a public interest law firm inspired by the struggle of political and politicized prisoners, and organized for the purpose of abolishing class and race based mass incarceration in the United States. https://abolitionistlawcenter.org/