Virtual Life Sentences: the Least Discussed Form of Death by Incarceration

The following piece was written by 63-year-old Frederick Page, who was born and raised in North Philadelphia and has served 34 years of a virtual life sentence. In 1989, when Frederick was 29 years old, he was convicted of 17 misdemeanor burglaries and sentenced to 42 ½ to 102 years. Following his sentencing, Frederick said that at a Reconsideration of Sentence hearing, District Attorney Rayford Means disagreed with the extreme length of his sentence, suggesting that twenty to forty years fit his nonviolent crimes better. According to Frederick, the judge denied the resentencing request and callously responded, “He’s doing the time.” Frederick’s is just one of countless examples of the unjust, over incarceration that plagues our state and country. 

Throughout his incarceration, Frederick has achieved a long list of rehabilitative and transformative programs, vocational training, and educational courses. Among many other accomplishments, Frederick co-created a faith based re-entry program named “Community Forgiveness & Restoration,” as well as a program called F.A.C.T. (Fathers and Children Together), which teaches absent fathers how to parent their children and reunites families. Frederick previously served as the Vice President of the Gray Panthers, an organization designed to represent the needs of elderly incarcerated seniors, and he is on the board of PAR (People Advancing Reintegration), which prepares incarcerated men to return to society. Frederick now holds an Associate’s Degree in General Studies from Montgomery County Community College and a Bachelor’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from Villanova University with Minors in Theology & Religious Studies and Philosophy.

In this piece, Frederick explains the commonly overlooked reality of Virtual Life sentences. While not technically or legally holding the name of “Life sentence,” Virtual Life sentences still aim to result in death behind bars. Often sending people to prison for several hundreds of years, Virtual Life sentences generally provide little to no opportunity for release during an average human lifetime. Frederick leaves us to consider: how much time is enough for both violent and non-violent crimes where there is visible rehabilitation and sincere remorse present?

You can contact the author at: 

Smart Communications/PADOC
Frederick Page BU2238

SCI Phoenix
PO Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733

A Virtual Life Sentence is when people are eligible for parole but serving excessive sentences resulting in Death by Incarceration. Their chances of making parole is greatly reduced because as adults, they are given sentences beyond the average span of one’s life. 

This form of punishment is a grossly unjust violation of the Eighth Amendment based on discrimination of sentencing one to a harsh punishment, without an early release mechanism, regardless of one’s proven rehabilitation and quality of life achievements.

The disparity of harsh sentencing has long been in effect. Someone on Death Row is afforded an opportunity of having a lawyer throughout their sentence to either prove the sentence should be changed to Life Without Parole or to prove that they were wrongfully convicted. Many Death Row sentenced people have and continue to be resentenced to Life sentences and set free from the harsher sentence of death. 

People serving Life Without Parole face many obstacles both in court and when filing for commutation. Since the “Tough on Crime” era, the door on commutation has been tightly closed. Before this particular tough stance on crime, in 1978, some 278 Lifers had their sentences commuted with a successful period of not recommitting any crimes. However tightly closed the door, some men serving Life Sentences were commuted between the early 1980s and the year 2017. Very few, but some Life Sentences were commuted. However, Virtual Life sentenced people have continually filed for commutation but were denied every single time in that forty year period.

Women and men who are serving a Virtual Life sentence, along with many Life Without Parole people, have demonstrated over a long period of time that they are rehabilitated. They are among those who give stability to the institutions they are in, as well as the counselors who embraced the mentally ill, the assaultive and behavioral residents in prison. Yet, Virtual Life sentenced people are the least talked about in relation to Criminal Justice Reforms. 

A Washington D.C. based organization known as the Sentencing Project released its report in May of 2017, titled, “Still Life: America Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences,” which analyzes the excessive number of people serving life sentences despite prison populations decreasing in the United States.

Prison Legal News (a prison publication dedicated to protecting human rights) published an article by Derek Gilna in its January 2018 edition, in which he cited: “In 2016, a staggering 161,957 prisoners were serving life sentences, both with and without parole, constituting one of every nine state and federal prisoners. Further, an additional 44,311 prisoners in the U.S. were serving ‘Virtual’ or ‘Life Equivalent’ sentences of at least 50 years, for a total of 206,268 people or 13.9 percent of the prison population.”

What most of the public is unaware of is that a majority of those serving Virtual Life or Life sentences have been convicted of violent crimes, while a majority of those serving Virtual or Life Equivalent sentences have been convicted of non-violent crimes. An insightful question to ask is how can it be possible for someone convicted of non-violent crimes to receive the same or sometimes greater sentence as someone convicted of a violent crime? Another question to ask is how much time is enough for both violent and non-violent crimes where there is visible rehabilitation and sincere remorse present?

Rare incidents of radically cruel violence cause alarm for the public’s safety, leading to fear-based criminal policies and practices. Elected officials and public officials react to pressure of maintaining office and/or fear of careers being sullied, should an ex-offender or criminal recommit their crimes. This influence persuades the drive to act at times above or beyond the written laws. It too, causes many to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to reoccurring injustices. 

When the smoke clears, we are left to face the certain truth that a single violent incident or a single violent act, committed by a small percentage of people, sets the tone for over-incarcerating people. 

A Restorative Justice approach would be to sentence each individual on their own merit. Executing the law has become an act of vengeance, rather than an act of justice. It is true that the behavior of a small percentage of people sets the standard for criminal justice policies, void of forgiving the person for their acts, regardless of sincere remorse and certain rehabilitation.

The unforgiving practices in policy have been proven to be unrealistic to the realities of evidence-based research, which suggests that Virtual Life sentenced and Life sentenced people who are elderly senior citizens, have the lowest recidivism rates throughout the nation. Both groups of prisoners have individuals among them who are over-incarcerated.

This assures the outcome that Death by Incarceration is the certain result where there are no viable release mechanisms for elderly rehabilitated women and men. The results are clear. The intended objective of Virtual Life sentences, which is to incapacitate and act as a deterrent, fails to recognize rehabilitation, losing its potential ability to return credible citizens back into society. Some judges and prosecutors even cleverly use to their advantage consecutive sentencing schemes to purposely give people sentences beyond their life span.

In the case of Commonwealth vs. Timothy Dodge, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled to vacate the judge’s aggregate sentence totaling 58½ to 124 year sentence, where “judge appeared to have fixed purpose of keeping defendant in jail for life, while impact of crimes on victims and community were addressed, gravity of offenses was not, court imposed minimum sentence of 52 years for 37 counts of receiving personal property, many of which were not crimes against a person, and two burglary convictions involved no violence involving person, and while recidivism was addressed, rehabilitative needs of defendants were not.”

In the above statement, the Superior Court acknowledged that Timothy Dodge was given a death by incarceration sentence for property crimes. It should shock the conscience of society that someone who commits property crimes—and no violent crime against another person—could face a punishment that amounts to dying in prison.

The PA legislature passed Title 42 for Appellate Review of Sentence in 1982, which established a defendant’s right to appeal an illegal sentence. The statute mandates that the appellate court shall vacate the sentence and remand the case to the sentencing court with instructions if it finds:

  1. The sentencing court purported to sentence within the sentencing guidelines but applied the guidelines erroneously;
  2. The sentencing court sentenced within the sentencing guidelines but the case involves circumstances where the application of the guidelines would be clearly unreasonable; or
  3. The sentencing court sentenced outside the sentencing guidelines and the sentence is unreasonable. 

Despite this mandate, courts continue to uphold illegal sentences. The language of the law is clearly an objective resolve of some errors or abuse of discretion by judges and prosecutors. However, it is of no inherent power, when judges and prosecutors’ reputation supersedes the written letter of the laws. The statute is of no inherent power, where clearly established miscarriages of justice claims are met with a certain inherited bias from a flawed criminal justice system. The horse that drives the carriage of abuse and injustice is huge enough for all to visibly see. We are presented with the question: how is it that most claims of excessive sentencing never get corrected, or never make it through the appellate review process? 

As advocates of reform to the criminal justice system address some obvious elephants in the room, let us be mindful that people drive the vehicle by which there are flaws. All laws and policies are not as flawed as sometimes is the people’s consciousness to the human narrative that we share. That is to say, at times the answer is in the already written law, but the perspective of the law is always a matter of interpretation which begins inside one’s heart. The heart is the catalyst of injustice, just as it is and can be the catalyst for justice. 

It is daylight, and while there remains a light of hope, why not restore justice to the law’s administration and execution by way of true criminal justice reforms. We can do that today by Taking Steps to Reform Virtual Life Sentences. We can be found on the right side of history by standing up for those serving: The Least Discussed Form of Death by Incarceration. Let’s execute a Restorative Justice approach, by using a just implementation of policy and laws that represent the power behind rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is more than just a word, it is a force in action/motion—which has been one of the critical missing ingredients from the criminal justice system. 

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