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Report: Life Sentences Create ‘Larger, Older, Sicker, More Expensive’ Prison Population

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
The Secretary of Pennsylvania's Board of Pardons, Brandon Flood, speaks outside Pittsburgh's City-County Building Friday, Feb. 12, 2021.

State pardons officials and prisoner rights advocates continued their push Friday to expand chances for release for the roughly 1,200 Pennsylvanians serving life sentences for felony-murder.

“That is over 1,100 people who did not intend to take a life, or did not directly cause a life to be taken, that will die in prison without the intervention of leaders,” said Celeste Trusty, Pennsylvania state policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

In Pennsylvania, people can be convicted of felony-murder if they participate in a felony such as robbery or kidnapping that results in death. The offense, also known as second-degree murder, has long been criticized because in Pennsylvania it is only punishable with life in prison and applies to everyone involved in the felony – even if, for example, they acted only as a getaway driver or a lookout without knowing that their accomplice was armed.

Unless something is done to expedite handling of those cases, Trusty said, “this population will simply continue to get larger, older, sicker, and more expensive to keep incarcerated, until they die.”

Trusty spoke Friday at a news conference in downtown Pittsburgh, where Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the state’s pardons board secretary Brandon Flood, and other supporters also made remarks.

The event coincided with the release of a study that found that the overwhelming majority of people serving life terms in Pennsylvania for second-degree murder are Black, and that they committed their crimes at the age of 25 or younger.

Earlier this week, the state’s Commonwealth Court heard oral arguments in a case that challenges the constitutionality of mandatory life sentences for people convicted of second-degree murder without the possibility of parole. Gov. Tom Wolf, meanwhile granted clemency Thursday to 13 people who were serving life sentences.

Because they’re denied the opportunity for parole, Pennsylvanians convicted of second-degree murder can only be released through commutation. Only the state’s governor can grant the relief, which effectively shortens an individual’s sentence.

The state’s pardons board, however, must first unanimously recommend commutation. It rarely does so, but Friday’s report suggests that could change if it were to give greater consideration to the age at which clemency applicants committed their offense, how long they have been imprisoned, and whether they pleaded guilty to their crime.

And Fetterman, who chairs the five-member pardons board, has sought to mobilize the body to counter what he considers to be overly harsh sentences.

“I always want to err on the side of mercy,” he said. The pardons board has “freed individuals [whose] crime was being an 18-year-old sitting in a getaway car having no idea what was going on inside. We freed a man who did 51 years and he never took a life. Fifty-one years: That’s not justice.”

Beyond clemency, Flood said, the felony-murder law itself will remain “an issue that our legislature [will] have to come together to be able to address.”

The Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity completed the report released Friday at Fetterman’s request. The nonprofit helps low-income Philadelphians with criminal histories to expunge their records, apply for pardons, and find jobs and housing. It drew on court records and corrections data to perform its analysis, which was funded by the Heinz Endowments.

According to the assessment, 7 in 10 Pennsylvanians incarcerated for felony-murder are Black, though Black residents comprise just 12% of the state’s population. Whites, meanwhile, account for 21% of second-degree murder sentences, even though they make up 82% of the population. 

Today, the average age of those serving a sentence for felony-murder is 49 years, the report estimates. And it notes that the costs of confining people balloon as they grow older. While on average it costs nearly $50,000 to house one person in state prison, the report finds that the average cost for those requiring geriatric care amounts to $87,000 annually.

Meanwhile, the study notes, people’s propensity to commit crimes decreases naturally as they mature. Courts have traditionally recognized that people younger than 18 are especially likely to engage in risky behavior and submit to peer pressure, but neurological research has shown adolescent brain development continues until about age 25.

As they age, Flood said, people convicted of felony-murder “pose minimal risk to public safety … are exemplary inmates and … are deserving of mercy and forgiveness.”

Friday’s report found that the younger people were, the more likely they were to commit their crime with others rather than alone: Its analysis found that people ages 18 to 20 are most likely to be convicted of felony-murder.

But in about 360 cases involving a charge of felony-murder, a third of co-defendants were charged with a lesser offense such as third-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter, even though they participated in the same series of events that resulted in death. Among those co-defendants, sentences tended to range from 8 to 19 years.

Those figures, the report said, offer a benchmark for determining how long people imprisoned for felony-murder should remain behind bars before having their sentences commuted.

The fate of people serving life terms for second-degree murder is also related to whether they pleaded guilty rather than go to trial, the study noted. It cited data that shows that people convicted of the offense were far more likely to have proceeded to trial. Just 16% had agreed to a plea deal.

While the report did not analyze whether risks associated with trials themselves caused individuals to be more likely to be convicted for second-degree murder, it found that 80 percent of co-defendants who pleaded guilty received sentences less than life without parole, compared to just 14% who went to trial.

White people convicted of second-degree murder pleaded guilty three times as often as their Black counterparts and two times as often as their Hispanic and Latino peers, according to the study. Plea bargaining also became more common with age, the study said.

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.