In Pa., being sentenced to life without parole is equivalent to being sentenced to death. This Tuesday, a coalition of advocates will rally in Harrisburg to support reforms once deemed nonviable.
By Tony Abraham
Here’s the difference between capital punishment and life without parole in Pennsylvania: The first has taken three lives in its 40-year history. The second kills an average of 28 people on an annual basis.
Which one is the death penalty, again?
In Pa., a “life” sentence without parole literally means you serve until you die. Over 5,000 inmates are currently serving life sentences without parole the state, which admits an average of 133 new lifers per year — more than any state aside from Florida.
“We need to see legislature change,” said Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI) member Layne Mullet.
The Coalition, primarily led by Decarcerate PA, Fight for Lifers, The Human Rights Coalition and Right to Redemption, will descend on the state capitol this week to rally behind House Bill 2135. The legislature, introduced by state Rep. Jason Dawkins (D-Kensington) this past June, would make those serving life sentences eligible for parole after 15 years.
The bill is currently in the House Judiciary Committee.
“We have a long way to go from where the bill is now to what it would take to even get a vote in the House,” said Mullet. “Nothing like this has ever been introduced in the past. For a long time, we heard legislators tell us it wasn’t politically feasible.”
But Mullet said there’s “considerable grassroots momentum” behind this bill (three buses of advocates will be landing in Harrisburg on Tuesday). Mullet considers the fact that this particular piece of legislature is even on the table as a political option to be a “real step forward.”
For one, there’s a lot more talk about reforming the criminal justice system than there is actual legislative reform. While Philadelphia and the Commonwealth have taken steps to reduce prison populations, minimize sentencing for low-level offenders and implement supports for reentry, this reform is a bit more extreme.
Approximately 75 percent of lifers in Pennsylvania have been convicted of murder.
The advocate believes many lifers have been rehabilitated by the system and have become “great mentors” who can be an asset to the communities they call home — and the at-risk youth who are walking the paths they once walked.
Those youth don’t have an opportunity to learn from people who have been in their shoes — not until it’s too late. That, said Mullet, is a tragedy.
“Many people who have caused harm, who have committed violent acts, this would give them a chance to come home,” she said. “To be accountable and make their communities better.”