FAMM has released a new report, Time for Justice: The Urgent Need for Second Chances in Pennsylvania’s Sentencing System,” which looks at the harms and injustices of extreme sentences in Pennsylvania, with a focus on minimum sentences of 20 years or longer. The report also provides recommendations for reform (press release available here).
Key findings include:
• In 2019, Pennsylvania imprisoned more than seven times the number of people that it did in 1970. That growth was driven by punitive policy choices, not increases in crime, and it did not make Pennsylvanians safer.
• Pennsylvania is a national leader in imposing extreme sentences. This ranking is largely driven by two laws: the mandatory minimum sentence of life imprisonment required for first- and second-degree murder, and the denial of parole eligibility to anyone serving a life sentence. In Pennsylvania prisons, 13.4% of people are serving life without parole (LWOP), compared to only 3.6% nationally.
• The population serving extreme sentences in Pennsylvania has surged over the last few decades. There were more than nine times as many people serving extreme sentences in 2019 than there were in 1980.
• Pennsylvania’s extreme sentencing practices have overwhelmingly impacted people of color, especially Black people, who make up less than 11% of Pennsylvania’s population but 65% of people serving life sentences and 58% of those serving non-life sentences of 20 years or longer.
• Pennsylvania’s extreme sentencing practices have created a large (and growing) elderly prison population, which increased thirtyfold from 1979 to 2019.
Pennsylvania’s extreme sentences are a high-cost, low-value proposition for taxpayers.
• Researchers have found no evidence that severe sentencing policies discourage people from choosing to engage in crime.
• Extreme sentences are not necessary for preventing recidivism, because the vast majority of people who commit crimes — even very serious crimes — naturally grow out of criminal behavior as they age and mature. For example, of the 174 Philadelphia juvenile lifers — all originally convicted of homicide — who were resentenced and released following landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions, only two (1.1%) had been reconvicted of any offense as of 2020.
• Based on average incarceration costs, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) is spending $220 million per year to incarcerate 3,892 people who have already served at least 20 years. The true cost is undoubtedly higher, because incarceration costs increase dramatically as people age and need more medical care.
• The average cost for incarcerated individuals in skilled or personal care units is $500 per day (or $182,625 per year), more than three times the cost for the general population.