(Photo via The Philadelphia Tribune)
By Sandra L. Strauss
I believe in second chances. My life has been full of second chances—career and home changes and correcting the many mistakes I have made.
As a Christian, I believe all people should have second chances, yet far too many do not. As we enter spring, a season for new and reemerging life, I think it’s time to consider a second chance at a new life for our incarcerated neighbors who have received sentences of life without parole.
Pennsylvania holds the dubious distinction of being a leader in terms of incarcerated persons serving life sentences without the possibility of parole—what we would describe more accurately as death by incarceration because those receiving this sentence will quite literally die in prison.
Over one in 10 who are serving this sentence nationwide are in Pennsylvania prisons. We are first when it comes to death by incarceration sentences for youth, and second for all other instances of death by incarceration—only Florida, with double Pennsylvania’s population, surpasses Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania Council of Churches has long advocated for reforms in our Commonwealth’s and nation’s criminal justice systems.
As Christians, we hear Jesus speaking against retributive justice when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39).
While we understand that those who break the law must be held responsible for their actions, we also believe that (1) our criminal justice system does not treat all people equally, and (2) our first priority for addressing those who have violated the law should be rehabilitation and restoration, not vengeance and retribution.
It is for these reasons and more that we view death by incarceration as a policy issue that must be addressed and support passage of two pieces of legislation designed to address it.
Right now, compassionate release for those who are older or chronically ill is vanishingly rare for persons sentenced to death by incarceration in Pennsylvania, even though any threat from those paroled is very low. We know that recidivism rates for those over 65 is less than 1 percent and we believe rates for people released with chronic illness would be lower as well.
Legislation sponsored by Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, (SB 835) tackles compassionate release, providing new forms of parole eligibility for incarcerated persons who are over 55 for age or younger depending on the health condition.
Parole would not be automatic; the Board of Pardons and Paroles would need to determine that a potential parolee is no longer a threat to the community. Those with death by incarceration sentences would still be required to serve a minimum sentence based on the offense—at least 25 years or half their sentence at the age of 55, whichever is shorter. This minimum may vary based on medical release.
While compassionate release is a top priority for the Council because sick and geriatric populations are at high risk, we also support an end to death by incarceration because we believe in rehabilitation and restoration, not vengeance and retribution.
Another Street-authored proposal, SB135, would effectively end the practice of death by incarceration.
Eligibility for parole only comes after incarcerated persons have served the minimum sentence required for their offense. This change also means that the disproportionately high number of Black Pennsylvanians sentenced to death by incarceration—18 times higher than for white Pennsylvanians—will be given an opportunity for parole (though disproportionate sentencing still must be addressed).
One other feature of Street’s proposal bears mention—a Life With Parole Investment Fund would invest savings from reducing the prison population into things such as victim services, reentry programs and supervision of certain paroled offenders.
We believe that these types of expenditures represent better stewardship of our hard-earned tax dollars than continuing to imprison thousands who no longer represent any threat to society, and whose incarceration costs two to three times more primarily because of healthcare costs.
Also, far too many of our incarcerated neighbors go to prison for reasons they can’t control—poverty, trauma, lack of resources—and judges are not permitted to address these circumstances when considering a death by incarceration conviction. Reducing prison populations would free budgetary resources that could be used for programs and activities aimed at fixing these conditions and keeping people out of prison to begin with—again, better stewardship of our resources.
As we celebrate new life represented by the blooming of spring flowers and the blossoming and greening of trees, we call upon our General Assembly to pass Street’s two bills and end Pennsylvania’s leadership in life without parole.
Instead, let’s turn Pennsylvania into a leader in rebuilding and rehabilitating our formerly incarcerated neighbors—effectively providing new life for thousands sentenced to death by incarceration. We call upon people of faith from every tradition and people of good will to join us in urging them to act now.
The Rev. Sandra L. Strauss is the director of Advocacy & Ecumenical Outreach for the Pennsylvania Council of Churches. She writes from Harrisburg.
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