|DATE FILED||July 8, 2020|
|LOCATION||Pennsylvania State Prisons|
|KEY ISSUES||Death by Incarceration, Cruel and Unusual Punishment, Prisoners’ Rights, “Felony Murder” Rule, Aging Prisoners|
|CO-COUNSEL||Amistad Law Project and Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR)|
People Serving Mandatory Life Without Parole Challenge Death-By-Incarceration Sentences as Cruel and Unconstitutional
On July 8, 2020, people in Pennsylvania serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences, commonly known as Life Without Parole, filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s prohibition on parole eligibility for those serving life sentences after convictions under the felony murder rule. In Pennsylvania, people convicted under that rule are mandatorily sentenced to life imprisonment, even though they did not take a life, or did not intend to take a life in the course of the crime. A separate provision of the law prohibits parole eligibility for any individual serving life. The lawsuit, filed by the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, is the first challenge of its kind in the country and argues that mandatory Life Without Parole sentences for those who did not kill or did not intend to kill are unconstitutionally cruel under the Pennsylvania constitution. They join a movement of advocates currently and formerly incarcerated in referring to Life Without Parole as Death By Incarceration, which they say is the true impact of these sentences.
“A life sentence means death in this Commonwealth,” said lead plaintiff Marie Scott. “In other words, you are sentenced to a life sentence that you must live out until you die. The more I serve what feels like Death By Incarceration, the more I wonder, how could such a draconian penalty be handed down to those of us who’ve neither killed anyone nor intended to kill. Clearly, in my mind, there has to be some room for a chance at redemption.”
The complaint is on behalf of six plaintiffs serving Death By Incarceration sentences after being convicted of felony murder in their late teens or early 20s. They have all spent between 23 and 47 years in prison. Despite their sentences, none caused or intended the death of the victim. The complaint argues that sentences of Death By Incarceration, which the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized are akin to the death penalty in their severity and irrevocability, are disproportionate and serve no legitimate penological interest when applied to individuals who do not kill or intend to kill as part of their crime.
“Death-By-Incarceration sentences mean that the punishment of people serving that sentence is perpetual. Despite serving decades in prison, the parole board refuses to look at any of our clients’ cases to see if they can safely be free in our communities. And we believe that they and many others like them should be home,” said Kris Henderson, Executive Director of Amistad Law Project.
The complaint filed today notes that Pennsylvania is an outlier within the United States and around the world in terms of the number and rate of prisoners serving Death By Incarceration sentences. At approximately 5,200 people, Pennsylvania has the second-highest number of people serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences in the country and accounts for 10 percent of the total number of Death-By-Incarceration sentences in the country. It is one of only six states that does not allow for the possibility of parole for people serving life sentences. Philadelphia county, in particular, has more people serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences than 45 states – and more than any country in the world. In fact, Philadelphia’s rate of Death By Incarceration is higher than the overallincarceration rate of 140 countries.
“Although Death By Incarceration does not further public safety, it indisputably aggravates apartheid in the criminal punishment system as 70 percent of the approximately 1,100 forced to die in prison under the felony murder rule in Pennsylvania are Black,” said Robert Saleem Holbrook, Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “This has to end. Granting parole eligibility and establishing a right to redemption for this group will be an important step toward racial justice.”
Attorneys say Pennsylvania’s Death-By-Incarceration sentencing scheme exacerbates many of the problems that exist throughout U.S. prisons. Like incarceration overall, vast racial disparities exist within Pennsylvania’s Death-By-Incarceration sentencing scheme; Black people are sentenced to Death By Incarceration at a rate 18 times higher, and Latinx people at a rate five times higher, than white people. Advocates say this challenge to Death By Incarceration joins demands around the country for an end to state violence against Black people. The complete impossibility of parole for people serving life sentences in Pennsylvania has also contributed to the aging nature of the state’s prison population, with over 10,000 people over the age of 50, the fourth-highest number in the state. The concerns and costs of incarcerating thousands of aging or elderly people are heightened in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic given the impossibility of social distancing in prison and the fact that older people are particularly at risk. The plaintiffs in this case, like the majority of those serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences in Pennsylvania, are aging or considered elderly by prison standards, and face the risk of an even sooner death in prison.
“The plaintiffs in this case exemplify the excessiveness and cruelty of Death-By-Incarceration sentences—the monstrosity of locking anyone up for life, with no possibility ever of release, no matter their circumstances, or whether healing and security are actually served for the communities impacted,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Staff Attorney Pardiss Kebriaei. “These sentences, which affect thousands of people across the country, help justify the supposed need for a massive prison system built and resourced to put people away for decades or life, and, like other extreme U.S. sentencing practices, must be challenged as part of the movement to end mass incarceration..”
For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.
You can view / download the official complaint here.
“Pittsburgh law firm argues “first-of-its-kind” case in front of state Supreme Court” by Jordana Rosenfeld for Pittsburgh City Paper (04/16/2022)
“Pa. Supreme Court to consider jurisdiction question in second-degree murder lawsuit” by Paula Reed Ward for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (04/13/2022)
“Life Without Parole For ‘Felony Murder’: Pa. Case Targets Sentencing Law” by Carrie Johnson for NPR – Morning Edition (02/04/2021)
“Lawsuit challenges constitutionality of life without parole sentences for second-degree murder” by Paula Reed Ward for Pittsburgh Post Gazette (07/08/2020)
“Lawsuit: Pennsylvania lifers should have chance at parole” by Megan Guza for The Pittsburgh Tribune (07/08/2020)
“Lawsuit challenges Pennsylvania’s mandatory life prison terms for some murder convictions” by Julie Shaw for The Philadelphia Inquirer (07/08/2020)
“Pennsylvania Inmates File Challenge to Parole Restrictions” Claudia Lauer for The Associated Press (07/08/2020)
“Sentenced For Life, Prisoners Convicted Of Felony-Murder Sue For Chance At Release” by An-Li Herring for 90.5 WESA (NPR) (07/08/2020)