The Urgent Need For Second Chances In Pennsylvania’s Sentencing System
What better time for justice than 2022. As we dive into this new year, we should lean into our lawmakers to urge them to bring our friends and loved ones home. As part of their continuous efforts to support second chances in Pennsylvania, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) released a report entitled “Time for Justice: The Urgent Need for Second Chances in Pennsylvania’s Sentencing System,” which looks at the abuses and injustices of extreme sentences in Pennsylvania. The report focuses on minimum sentences of 20 years or longer. The report also provides recommendations for reform.
Here are the top five takeaways from the report:
1. “Researchers have found no evidence that severe sentencing policies discourage people from choosing to engage in crime.”
Deterrence, a major justification for the infliction of mandatory Death by Incarceration (DBI) sentences, has been disproven time and time again as an effective penological method to stop crime. Most people are not even aware of which crimes carry mandatory life sentences. According to the report, “It is the certainty of the punishment, not the length of punishment, that deters crime.” Prison, in its current state, mostly serves the purpose of incapacitation and punishment. And after decades of incarceration, many individuals who made one bad decision do not need to remain incapacitated from society.
2. “Pennsylvania’s extreme sentencing practices have created a large (and growing) elderly prison population, which increased thirtyfold from 1979 to 2019.”
The number of incarcerated people aged 50 years or older serving life sentences in Pennsylvania’s correctional facilities has grown from 795 in 2001 to 1,077 in 2004. In July 2021, there were 10,265 people aged 50 years and older, almost 25% of the total incarcerated population. The state is spending taxpayer money to keep elderly people in prison who pose no threat to society.
3. Mandatory life without parole (LWOP) deprives judges of the opportunity to make individualized sentencing decisions that take into account all important facts of a case.
Pennsylvania law continues to use the outdated mandatory minimum sentencing scheme that ignores the circumstances of a case and bolsters mass incarceration. PA is the only state where life without parole is mandatory for second-degree. This means that people who did not kill or intend to kill anyone are being sentenced to die in prison. PA is one of the six states that have mandatory Death by Incarceration sentences for first-degree as well. As a result, PA is one of the few states in the country where, during sentencing, judges and juries are stripped of the power to consider the circumstances of the crime or any specific context about the individual like age or trauma, for example.
4. Pennsylvania is a national leader in imposing extreme sentences.
Since at least the fiscal year 2012-2013, there has been a consistent call for the reduction of the incarcerated population as addressed in the PADOC Budget Testimony. This means that the PADOC itself acknowledges the urgent need for decarceration! Pennsylvania also has one of the highest per capita DBI sentencing rates in the country. The state makes its mark as the national and world leader in this excessive form of punishment. Philadelphia County alone in 2018, held nearly 2,700 people serving DBI sentences. Philadelphia is the world’s leading jurisdiction in sentencing people to die in prison—more than any county in the United States and more than any country in the world.
5. “Based on average incarceration costs, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is spending $220 million per year to incarcerate 3,892 people who have already served at least 20 years.”
Since people sentenced to Death by Incarceration spend decades upon decades in prison, they often become seriously or terminally ill in prison, requiring costly care, which contributes to the growing cost of the state’s corrections system. This money could be spent on preventing the rising violence and crime rate in our communities. According to the report, Philadelphia alone is “under-investing in evidence-based community violence intervention (CVI) by approximately $22 million compared to cities with more successful CVI programs.” If the state stopped wasting money incarcerating elderly people who pose no threat to society, Pennsylvania could use even a fraction of that money to fund methods of crime prevention that have been proven to make our communities safer.
Read the full report here!