Movement to End Death by Incarceration Grows

Abolish death by incarceration protestThe Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI) has been hard at work over the last several months. CADBI is a coalition that was founded by Decarcerate PA, the Human Rights Coalition, Fight for Lifers, and Right to Redemption to end life without parole / death by incarceration (DBI) in Pennsylvania. Since we launched the campaign last June, we’ve been working on developing our coalition and figuring out our internal structures and strategy. We’re also in the initial stages of reaching out to legislators and are putting pressure on the Philadelphia District Attorney specifically around juvenile life without parole (see more in the article about our Mother’s Day Action, page x).

Structure and strategy

Since our launch event, we have been working internally to develop strategy and structure to move the campaign forward. Several committees have formed to focus on specific areas of work, including outreach, membership, prison visitation, and education. In February, we held a retreat to plan our strategy for the coming year. At that retreat, we decided the first targets of our campaign should be legislators who we believe may be sympathetic to our cause. In addition, we will be generally reaching out to legislators on the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, since those are the committees where legislation on the issue of DBI could be introduced. We are also interested in figuring out possible ways to pressure Governor Wolf.

Four our initial outreach efforts, we want to connect with people serving DBI and their families, faith communities across the state, people who have experienced harm or violence, and social justice organizations. And we decided to plan two actions over the next several months. The first was a rally just before Mother’s Day, highlighting juvenile life without parole and calling for compassion and healing, as well as calling on the District Attorney to take action. The second will be a bigger, statewide Day of Action against DBI in the fall.

People both inside and outside of prison can be members of CADBI. For folks on the outside, you can join us at our monthly meetings, which take place on the third Wednesday of every month at 6:30 at 1515 Fairmount Street in Philadelphia, or you can contact us at CADBIphilly@gmail.com or 267-606-0324. For people who are currently incarcerated, you can get involved by writing to us at CADBI c/o Decarcerate PA, PO Box 40764, Phila. PA 19107 and we will mail you more information and a membership form.

CADBI legislative update

One way we are engaging legislators is through our postcard campaign. We are collecting signatures on postcards that ask legislators to end life without parole. So far we’ve gotten almost a thousand postcards signed.

We are also following up with legislators on specific pieces of legislation. Senator Daylin Leach recently introduced SB1138, which he claimed was a bill to end felony murder in Pennsylvania. In reality, the language of the bill is very vague and does not end felony murder. Instead, it would merely add language to the second degree murder statute requiring proof that someone was committing a felony and “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly” disregarded the risk that someone could be hurt. The bill reads: “(1) a defendant [was] engaged as a principal or an accomplice in the perpetration of a felony; or (2) an accomplice of a defendant engaged as a principal or accomplice in the perpetration of a felony and the defendant intentionally, knowingly or recklessly disregarded the risk that the death of another human being would occur as a result of their participation in the perpetration of the felony.” While this may mean that some defendants are able to avoid a felony murder charge, we are concerned that in practice — especially given the way the criminal legal system is stacked against poor people and people of color, many of whom do not have access to adequate legal representation — overzealous prosecutors would continue to push for, and get, second degree murder convictions very easily.

We were happy to see that the bill does have a retroactivity clause, but it would only entitle people already sentenced under the statute a judicial review to see if they were eligible for resentencing, which seems very limited in its scope.

In March, nine CADBI members met with Senator Leach and his chief of staff to express our concerns and disappointment about the bill. We hoped to be able to push them to change the language, but the bill had already been introduced. Leach and his staff said they included the current language to make it more possible that the bill would pass, and they did not seem open to substantive changes to the language. If you would like to see stronger language in this bill — language that would keep Senator Leach’s original commitment to ending felony murder — we encourage you to write to Senator Leach’s office to express your concerns at Senator Daylin Leach, 601 S. Henderson Rd #208, King of Prussia, PA 19406.

We continue to develop strategies to push the Pennsylvania legislature to abolish death by incarceration in its entirety, as well as seeking ways to engage with and support other potential legislative reforms such as Senator Kitchen’s SB1147 (seeking to abolish juvenile life without parole) and the efforts of our Pittsburgh allies in Let’s Get Free to restore a meaningful commutation process in Pennsylvania.