Safe and Smart: Fixing Harsh Life Sentences

In this second blog in our Safe and Smart series, we tackle Pennsylvania’s practice of sentencing offenders to life without parole (LWOP).

LWOP is coming under greater scrutiny from people across the ideological spectrum—with good reason. As noted in our policy brief, Safer Communities, Smarter Spending, LWOP is inherently unfair and should be reevaluated. 

According to a recent study, Pennsylvania’s LWOP population is the highest in the nation. One reason is that under current law, the state can issue a LWOP sentence for a crime involving a death, even if the person sentenced was not directly responsible for the death.

Thurmond Berry’s story is a prime example. Berry was carrying a gun when he and three others staged a robbery at a bar in 1975. During the robbery, one of the men with Berry shot and killed another man. Berry was eventually convicted of second-degree murder, which mandates a sentence of life without parole. Berry freely admits what he did was wrong, but he felt his punishment did not fit the crime.

After years of effort, Berry left prison once his pardon application was approved. But thousands of people remain incarcerated with little hope of a second chance.

A significant portion of this population is 50 years of age or older, adding to incarceration costs as older inmates tend to have higher medical expenses. Additionally, given the fact that people “age out” of criminal behavior as they grow older, the LWOP population is less likely to commit a crime. Taken together, these factors suggest LWOP is ripe for reform.

Unfortunately, instead of assessing the risk each individual poses to society when determining a sentence, the state mandates a one-size-fits-all draconian punishment model that proves counterproductive and costly. 

Fortunately, Senator Sharif Street has moved to correct LWOP’s injustices with Senate Bill 942. The legislation ends LWOP by allowing anyone serving a life sentence to be considered for parole after 15 years. It’s important to note the bill does not guarantee parole. The Board of Probation and Parole would still be empowered to keep dangerous offenders behind bars.

However, rehabilitated inmates—many of whom never took a life—would now have the possibility for a second chance. This proposal strikes the right balance between protecting public safety and paving the way for redemption by allowing the state to decide if incarceration is necessary and just.