By Ryan Deto
In Pennsylvania, those convicted of life sentences will die in prison. Incarcerated individuals with life sentences have no opportunity for a parole hearing in the commonwealth. According to the state Department of Corrections, Pennsylvania has the largest number of incarcerated individuals currently serving life sentences as juveniles: about 500 people.
Last Friday, advocates, formerly incarcerated individuals, and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers held a rally in Downtown Pittsburgh to advocate to alter those Pennsylvania requirements.
The group — which includes criminal justice advocates at groups like Straight Ahead, the Abolitionist Law Center, 1Hood Media, and the Alliance for Police Accountability — are calling for the passage of legislation (SB835) sponsored by state Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, which would provide a path to parole eligibility for certain incarcerated individuals over 55 years old and those with chronic or terminal health conditions.
An individual who is at least 55 years of age who has served 25 years in prison or one half of the minimum term, whichever comes first, of their term would be parole eligible, if Street’s bill, which is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee, becomes law. Parole eligibility does not guarantee release, it just means that incarcerated individuals have a chance to have their case heard by a parole board, which people with life sentences are not allowed to do currently.
“We are stronger communities with our elders and grandparents home,” Robert Saleem Holbrook, the executive director of Straight Ahead, which works to end death by incarceration, said in a statement. “This is about public safety: we know that people over 55 have the lowest recidivism rates, and chances of re-offending decline with age. No one is guaranteed release under this bill. The people we see coming home are elders, mentors and leaders working to keep others on the right path.”
While the bill would provide some path to lifers in Pennsylvania’s prison system, another goal of the change is to help the state’s Department of Corrections deal with outbreaks of infectious diseases, like COVID-19, that can harm and even kill incarcerated individuals with underlying health conditions.
In a January memo seeking co-sponsors for his bill, Street cited the high COVID case rates in state prisons, and the dozens of deaths that have occurred as a reason to allow older individuals and those with health conditions to become eligible for parole. The vast majority of COVID deaths among incarcerated people were 50 years of age or older.
Street’s bill has garnered bipartisan support. State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, and Democratic Pittsburgh state Reps. Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee attended the rally.
At the rally, Bartolotta, a co-sponsor of the bill, called for its passage, not only because she believes it is compassionate, but also for fiscal reasons. She said the Department of Corrections has estimated the cost for personal care is nearly $500 per day per person, and that most individuals under personal care are incapacitated and not threatening to society at all.
“Pennsylvania’s compassionate release program doesn’t work,” Bartolotta said. “By requiring someone to be both non ambulatory and have a terminal condition before being eligible for release, we have made this almost impossible to apply for. Not only is this current system not compassionate, it is extremely expensive.”
Innamorato noted that America is an outlier among nations in how much it incarcerates individuals for life, and that Pennsylvania is even worse than U.S. average. She said that needs to change.
“The United States is an outlier internationally for continuing to permit a system that permits death by incarceration,” Innamorato said. “Pennsylvania itself is an outlier in the United States with the second highest population of people serving death by incarceration. Let’s pass this bill and show Pennsylvania is ready to move away from a cruel and archaic system and move towards our shared values of compassion and redemption.”
Those convicted of first or second degree murder in Pennsylvania are given automatic life sentences, including juveniles. Thanks to a Supreme Court case, juveniles are eligible to apply for re sentencing, but the process is very cumbersome. Adults in Pennsylvania cannot. Second degree murder can mean a perpetrator was only present at the scene, and didn’t complete the act of killing.
A well-known case of a young person sentenced to life out of Pittsburgh is Avis Lee.
Lee served as the lookout for her brother and another man who were planning to rob someone outside of the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, an upscale gym in Oakland. Lee didn’t anticipate that anyone would be hurt, but a scuffle between the robbers and the victim led to one of the robbers fatally shooting the victim. Lee was eventually convicted with second degree murder in 1981 for the event.
Gov. Tom Wolf commuted Lee’s sentence in February, but she still served over 40 years in prison. She also spoke at the rally in Downtown Pittsburgh.
“I am one of the women who was sentenced to die in [Pennsylvania]. I served 40 years, 6 months and 12 days before my sentence was commuted to life with parole,” Lee said. “I met 2,000 people over my decades incarcerated. Many of whom I jogged around and played volleyball with and those same people later pushed them around the track in wheelchairs. Two of them died of breast cancer without compassionate release. This bill is so important for them to get the same opportunity for freedom I was given.”
If Lee’s sentence wasn’t commuted, she would have had no opportunity to be released with commutation, which is extremely rare. For example, those who have been convicted, but claim innocence, such as Pittsburgher William Daniels, usually struggle to get people to hear their cases. And usually having high profile support is necessary in receiving commutations.
Daniels, convicted of first degree murder in 1998, has served 23 years of his life sentence. He maintains his innocence to this day.
If Street’s bill were to pass, Daniels would become eligible for, but not guaranteed, a parole hearing in 2023. He would be about 53 years old that year.
The state’s geriatric prison population has quadrupled over the last 25 years and more than ten thousand incarcerated people in Pennsylvania are considered geriatric. These high numbers are caused by an aging prison population, not higher crime rates among seniors.
“Freeing our elders and medically vulnerable people is one of the moral imperatives of our generation,” community organizer Jennifer Black said in a statement. “We will either fulfill our mission, or betray it.”
Ryan Deto is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.
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