Report: Pa. has 2nd highest number of people in U.S. serving life without parole | Tuesday Morning Coffee

May 4, 2021 7:16 am

Good Tuesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

new study paints a harrowing portrait of the racial disparities among people serving life without parole, or virtual life sentences of 50 or more years, in Pennsylvania’s prisons. At 8,242 people, the state has not only the second-largest such population of incarcerated individuals in the nation, but also in the world, according to new research by the legal aid group Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity.

PLSE, which provides free legal advice and representation to low-income Philadelphians, conducted its research in conjunction with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who chairs the state Board of Pardons. Fetterman, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in 2022, has made reforming Pennsylvania’s life without parole system one of the cornerstones of his tenure.

Fetterman’s office initially commissioned the group in November in 2019 to conduct an audit of the 1,166 people then serving life sentences for second-degree murder, a charge that’s pursued when someone dies as a result of felony, such as a robbery, irrespective of the depth of someone’s involvement in a crime. The group’s first report, issued in February 2021, took a look at sentencing patterns.

The new report takes a more extensive look at the racial demographics in the state’s life-without-parole population.

Below, a look at some of those numbers.


(Source: Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity)

The research found that:

  • “Black people in Pennsylvania were sentenced to life without parole at a rate that was 18 times higher than white people.
  • “When the analysis was limited to people convicted of second-degree murder, the rate increased to 21.2 times higher.
  • “Of the 1,166 people incarcerated for second-degree murder in Pennsylvania: 69.9 percent (815) are Black; 20.6 percent (240) are White; 8.4% (98) are Hispanic/Latinx, and  1.1 percent (13) are Asian, Native American, or another race.
  • “The per capita rate of those serving life sentences for second-degree murder in Pennsylvania for Black people is 53.1 per 100,000, compared to 2.5 per 100,000 for white people,” the report found.
(Source: Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity)

As a result, researchers concluded, Black people are:

  • “5.8 times overrepresented compared to their percentage of the state population.
  • “2.0 times overrepresented from Philadelphia County (from which half of the second-degree murder convictions in the state originate).
  • “6.2 times overrepresented from Allegheny County (which includes Pittsburgh).
  • “6.6 times overrepresented from the remaining 65 counties. Hispanic/Latinx people are also overrepresented in the second-degree population, though by less substantial numbers. They comprise 8.4 percent of the second-degree population, compared to 7.8 percent of the state population,” the report reads.

The “disparities are also pronounced in direct comparison to the rest of the [Department of Corrections] population, excluding those incarcerated for second-degree murder,” the report’s authors wrote.

“Black people are 1.5 times overrepresented in the second-degree population compared to the DOC population, whereas White people are 2.1 times underrepresented. Hispanic/Latinx people are overrepresented in the DOC population overall, but rates are comparable between the second-degree population (8.4 percent) and the rest of the DOC population (9.3 percent),” they concluded.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman [Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller]

In a statement issued by his office, Fetterman said the disparities merit a second look at sentencing practices.

“If you didn’t take a life, the state shouldn’t take yours through permanent incarceration,” Fetterman said. “Committing to a comprehensive review of this inmate population would produce what justice demands: that those who didn’t take a life and who have been living their best lives in prison over two or three decades would be living out their lives at home.”

In that same statement, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who also sits on the pardons panel, said reforming the state’s felony murder statute would go a long way toward addressing systemic inequalities in the criminal justice system.

Shapiro, a likely Democratic candidate for governor in 2022, said the report “highlights how an overly punitive law and its disproportionate application have kept too many young people of color from a second chance to rehabilitate and rejoin society, while costing taxpayers, their communities and their families too much.”

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
Former University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg has been tapped by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to chair the commission conducting the once-a-decade redrawing of Pennsylvania’s legislative maps, Stephen Caruso reports.

With near unanimous support, the House State Government Committee has passed a proposal to cut Gov. Tom Wolf — and all future governors — out of the process for approving constitutional amendments in the commonwealth, Caruso also reports.

Our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper explain how rising rents and renovations have displaced Pittsburghers and added to the city’s ongoing issues with gentrification.

Philadelphia’s Home & School Council, chaired by Black women for the first time ever, has moved to center fathers’ voices, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

On our Commentary Page this morning, opinion regular Bruce Ledewitz says increasingly churchless Americans won’t find God, but we may find something else. And a Texas Tech scholar emphasizes the critical role that breakfast plays in reducing student absenteeism.

Following the lead of other cities, Philadelphia will soon start sending specialists along with police to some mental health calls, the Inquirer reports.
Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life has named the architectural team for a planned synagogue site renewal, the Post-Gazette reports.
PennLive has asked readers for their questions for Harrisburg’s 2021 mayoral candidates.
Gov. Tom Wolf says he’s considering loosening COVID-19 restrictions similar to those lifted Monday in New Jersey, the Morning Call reports.
Parents in one Lancaster County school district are protesting mask requirements for studentsLancasterOnline reports (paywall).
Luzerne County has launched its vaccination program for homebound residents, the Citizens’ Voice reports (paywall).
The York Daily Record homes in on the minimum wage debate in Harrisburg and Washington D.C. (paywall).

Here’s your #Philadelphia Instagram of the Day:


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A post shared by @phillydoorways

Philadelphia City Council has called for a ‘bold investment’ to fight gun violenceWHYY-FM reports.
Nurses  who belong to the state’s largest health care union have told lawmakers that the pandemic proves the need for a state policy mandating a minimum nurse-to-patient staffing ratioWITF-FM reports.
After seeing 2020 scrapped by the pandemic, the Erie Seawolves open their 2021 season on the road on Tuesday, GoErie reports.
A League of Women Voters forum in Pittsburgh on Monday gave voters tips on evaluating judicial candidates, the Observer-Reporter reports.
Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff will visit Allentown on Wednesday, PoliticsPA reports.
After facing criticism, President Joe Biden has lifted the country’s refugee cap to 62,500, Roll Call reports.

What Goes On.
The House comes in at 11 a.m. today. Here’s a look at the day’s event and committee action.
8:30 a.m., G50 Irvis: House Health Committee
9:30 a.m., 140MC: House Appropriations and Education committees – joint hearing on PASSHE realignment.
9:30 a.m., 515 Irvis North: House Children & Youth Committee
10 a.m, 523 Irvis South: House Aging & Older Adult Services Committee
10:30 a.m., Capitol Fountain: Reps. Pam Snyder and Malcolm Kenyatta on requiring business insurance to cover interruptions like global pandemics
Call of the Chair, 140MC: House Appropriations Committee
Call of the Chair, 515 Irvis North: House Labor & Industry Committee
Call of the Chair, 205 Ryan: House Liquor Control Committee

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition).
7:30 a.m.: 
Breakfast for Rep. Brad Roae
8 a.m.: 
Breakfast for Rep. Kyle Mullins
8 a.m.: 
Breakfast for Rep. Tommy Sankey
8 a.m.: 
Breakfast for Rep. Pam Snyder
5:30 p.m.: 
Reception for Rep. Dave Delloso
Ride the circuit, and give at the max today, and you’re out a ridiculous $7,000 today.

Gov. Tom Wolf 
has no public schedule today.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to PoliticsPA’s John Cole, who celebrates today. Congrats and enjoy the day, sir.

Heavy Rotation.
It’s May 4, which means it’s Star Wars Day, which means there’s only piece of music going in this space today. Readers, you may begin jamming to the ‘Cantina Theme,’ right now.

Tuesday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
Carolina skated past Chicago 5-2 
on Monday night, eliminating the Blackhawks from playoff contention.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.