Pa. lawmaker aims to end life without parole sentences

By Ray Downs  |  March 26, 2018 at 11:38 PM
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March 26 (UPI) -- A Pennsylvania lawmaker is leading an effort to end life without parole sentences, which would make his the first state to do away with the permanent punishment.

State Sen. Sharif Street, a Democrat out of Philadelphia, introduced Senate Bill 942 back in October and is preparing for a rally to promote it in Harrisburg, the state's capital, on Tuesday. The bill would allow people sentenced to life in prison to be eligible for parole after 15 years. Street says it's a bill that makes sense punitively and fiscally.

"There are also fiscal conservatives who support this because they believe that the purpose of our criminal justice system is to keep people safe, to rehabilitate people, and that to incarcerate people beyond that point is an expensive luxury that we can no longer afford," Street said, according to WHYY radio.

At the Mosaic Community Church in Philadelphia on Monday, Street told constituents that the bill doesn't guarantee parole to anybody given a life sentence, but extends the process of parole board hearings to people who have spent at least 15 years in prison. It also keeps in tact the opportunity for victims of crime to speak at parole board hearings, which Street points out is not necessarily a plea to keep the perpetrator in prison.

"Not all victims of crime want people to die behind bars," Street said. "Many times the people who are victims of crime, they have another loved one who is also serving behind bars. Sometimes people themselves are both perpetrators and victims of crime."

Not all life without parole sentences are for murder or sex crimes.

Looking at data in nine states and the federal prison system from 2012, the ACLU found 2,578 people serving life without parole for drug crimes, 652 for property crimes and 48 for other nonviolent offenses.

Street's effort to end life without parole sentences comes on the heels of the Supreme Court's 2012 decision that said life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. Since that ruling, 20 states, including Pennsylvania, have banned the sentence for juveniles.

Alaska is the only state in the country that does not have an official life without parole sentence on the books, but it does impose a 99-year sentence and judges can impose multiple 99-year sentences.

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