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Pennsylvania Leads Nation, World In Use Of Life Sentences

Marc Levy
Report co-author Quinn Cozzens said the Abolitionist Law Center study is the first to comprehensively gather data on life without parole in Pennsylvania.

A new report finds Pennsylvania sentences more inmates to life behind bars, without the possibility of parole, than any country outside the U.S. More than 5,300 prisoners in Pennsylvania are serving life without parole, according to the report from the Abolitionist Law Center.

Only Florida has more inmates serving life without parole -- and the much more populous Sunshine State has almost twice as many prisoners as Pennsylvania.

The high number of inmates serving for life here is due largely to tough state laws, according to Quinn Cozzens, a co-author of the report.

“Most of the sentences - over 99 percent of them - are imposed mandatorily, meaning that there’s no discretion for judges to impose a lesser sentence,” Cozzens said following the report’s release Tuesday.

Life without parole applies automatically to first- and second-degree murder, and sometimes to third-degree murder.

Statistics show the sentence is usually handed out to inmates aged 25 or younger, making the penalty especially stiff.

“Young people are more likely to engage in harmful behavior,” Cozzens said. “But, by the time they reach around the age of 40, people start to age out of that.”

Moreover, Cozzens said, older inmates could become benefit their community if released.

“Many of them really want the opportunity to atone in whatever way they can for the harm that they caused,” the attorney said. Often they want to "provide guidance to other folks in their community, to either avoid the same mistakes that they made, or work towards bettering society in whatever way they can.”

The 120-page report also finds it’s more expensive to keep older people behind bars.

“Due primarily to increased health care costs associated with age,” the document says, “it costs between two- and three-times more to incarcerate an elderly person than the average person.”

In 2012, Pennsylvania was forced to revise its sentencing law for minors under the age of 18 after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory life terms for juveniles. It replaced automatic life sentences for first- and second-degree murder with minimum mandatory sentences ranging from 20 to 35 years. Judges, however, still have the option to sentence minors for life.

The report released Tuesday shows that black inmates are far more likely than whites to be serving life without parole.

Blacks account for 65 percent those serving the sentences, while whites account for 25 percent. That's a disproportionate share of the prison population, and the disparity is even greater when the state's overall demographics are considered. A black Pennsylvanian is 18 times more likely than his or her white counterpart to be sentenced to life without parole.

The only way to reduce a life sentence without parole is to have a conviction overturned or through commutation.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.