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Senate of Pennsylvania
Session of 2021 - 2022 Regular Session


Posted: January 28, 2021 01:16 PM
From: Senator Sharif Street
To: All Senate members
Subject: Parole Eligibility for Life Sentences
In the near future, I plan to reintroduce Senate Bill 942 which would make it possible for those sentenced to life imprisonment to eventually have an opportunity to be reviewed for parole in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania has over 5,250 people serving a life sentence in our state prison system – more than all but one other state in the country. All life sentences in Pennsylvania are imposed without the possibility of parole. This means that individuals sentenced to life imprisonment may not be considered for parole, no matter how much they have reformed themselves and no matter how unlikely they are to re-offend. Those sentenced to life without parole in Pennsylvania also have no chance at release when they grow so ill or elderly they pose little to no risk to the public. Not only does this represent an injustice to an individual who is a model inmate despite having no chance at life outside of prison, but it also creates an avoidable expense for the corrections system – and the taxpayers who fund it – by incarcerating individuals longer than necessary.

Many people serving life without parole did not kill anyone. Many have been convicted of the Felony Murder Rule (Second-Degree Murder) which charges accomplices/co-conspirators as murderers, even if they had no knowledge a murder was being committed. Some are serving because they were convicted of more than three instances of violence.

There are also many survivors of domestic violence serving life without parole from convictions before PA passed a “Battered Spouse's Defense.” Those women would not be serving life today but were charged with First-Degree Murder in the 80’s and earlier and have no chance at parole.

This bill creates no right to parole, so it will not allow our most dangerous inmates to go free. The Commonwealth’s Board of Probation and Parole will continue to responsibly reject requests for parole from those who do not deserve it, or who present too great a safety risk to the public, just as it does today for Third-Degree Murder cases which do not carry a life sentence in PA.

This legislation has gained significant backing from a broad, bi-partisan coalition from civil liberties groups like the ACLU to more conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity, from criminal justice reform groups like the Coalition to End Death By Incarceration to victim advocate groups like Mothers in Charge.

This bill has some significant differences to SB942 and HB135 introduced in the last session, which created parole eligibility for all lifers after serving a 15-year sentence. Modeled after how juvenile lifers are treated in current statute, it sets parole eligibility in the following way:
  • 25 years for those convicted of Second-Degree Murder, and
  • 35 years for those convicted of First-Degree Murder.

There is an exemption for anyone who is convicted of murdering a law enforcement officer, who will continue to receive a life without parole sentence.

The bill also creates the State Office of Re-Entry Programs within the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime & Delinquency (PCCD). The office will work with agencies and non-profit service providers to bring consistency to how prisoner reentry is managed before and after release from incarceration. It will also coordinate all state grant funding for re-entry programs.

Like the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, the bill quantifies savings to the commonwealth based on these changes and reinvests those dollars in certain designated criminal justice programs. It creates a “Life with Parole Reinvestment Fund” in the State Treasury to receive those funds and provides for their disbursement to PCCD to fund re-entry programs and Victim/Witness Services programs and to the Department of Corrections to fund the Office of the Victims Advocate, the Board of Probation & Parole and State Parole Officers.

Please join me in co-sponsoring this legislation so that we may give the Board of Probation and Parole discretion to consider the circumstances of each inmate serving a life sentence. If you have any questions, please contact my Policy Director, Micah Mahjoubian at micah@pasenate.com

Introduced as SB135