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Why 1,200 people who never took a life are condemned to die in Pa. prisons. | Editorial

Automatically incarcerating for life someone who never took one raises concerns over injustice and the costs to the system.

The Department of Corrections will distribute Johnson & Johnson's single dose, coronavirus vaccine to thousands of inmates and correctional officers.
The Department of Corrections will distribute Johnson & Johnson's single dose, coronavirus vaccine to thousands of inmates and correctional officers.Read moreTim Tai / File Photograph

Life without parole is a punishment supposedly kept only for those beyond redemption, whose crimes are so heinous that they should never be part of society again. Under Pennsylvania law, anyone committing a premeditated murder -- first degree -- falls into that category. However, so do those who were an accomplice in a felony that lead to someone’s death. For them, state law mandates life without parole.

One of those accomplices is George Trudel Jr. When he was 20 years old, he held a knife before it was used by someone else in a fatal stabbing The actual assailant was convicted of third-degree murder -- no intent to kill -- and served seven years in prison while Trudel was convicted of second-degree murder -- felony murder -- and sentenced to life.

Trudel’s story is not rare. Of the 5,500 people serving life sentences in Pennsylvania state prisons, almost 1,200 were convicted of second-degree murder.

A large and aging population

An editorial board analysis of data from the Office of the Lt. Governor shows that the 1,166 felony murder lifers are almost exclusively men (96%), mostly black (70%), and half are from Philadelphia. The population is also aging. The average felony murder lifer starts their sentence at age 24; the average age of the lifers currently in prison is 48 — with the oldest condemned being 88 years old.

About half of second-degree lifers have already served two decades. A quarter already served three.

The case for commutations

Life without parole itself poses a difficult question of whether anyone is beyond correction. But automatically incarcerating for life someone who never took one raises concerns over arbitrary sentencing, to say nothing of injustice, ineffectiveness in deterring crime, and costs to the system. There may be a unique window of opportunity for change now. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who chairs the Board of Pardons (BOP) that recommends commutations and pardons to the governor, has made commutations a central part of his tenure in office.

The public safety risks of releasing people who have served decades in prison are minimal. Multiple studies show that people age out of violent crime. According to FBI data, less than 7% of all violent crime arrests in 2018 were of people over the age of 55. Further, the older someone is, the less likely they are to reoffend after release.

» READ MORE: An accomplice will die in prison while the killer goes free: The strange justice of Pennsylvania's felony-murder law

» READ MORE: 200 elderly lifers got out of prison en masse. Here’s what happened next.

Cost is a compelling factor. The commonwealth spends $40,000 a year per incarcerated person. According to Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel, the aging population has led to increases in the Department of Corrections’ medical costs. The costs of medications alone for incarcerated people over 50 now exceeds $2 million a month.

Next steps

According to the BOP, the commutation process typically takes more than two years. In the past 25 years, only 72 applications have been heard and 17 commutations have been granted -- 11 by Gov. Tom Wolf.

The process of gaining clemency is cumbersome. To take a more proactive approach, Fetterman has asked Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity to conduct an audit of the population to figure out who might be good candidates for commutation.

What must also happen: Abolishing life without parole for second-degree murder. It’s not a radical stance. Throughout most of U.S. history, until a shift in the 1980s, only a handful of states, including Pennsylvania, even permitted the punishment.

» READ MORE: Convincing Pennsylvania prison lifers to apply for clemency is Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s toughest campaign yet

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania is poised for much-needed criminal justice reform, but can we abolish life without parole? | Opinion

George Trudel’s story has a happy ending. After 31 years in prison, in April, Gov. Tom Wolf commuted his sentence. Now free, he works for Fetterman as a commutation specialist. Close to 1,200 other accomplices to homicides are not as lucky, yet. But state lawmakers should support the issue -- including legislation by State Sen. Sharif Street that would offer those convicted of second-degree murder parole eligibility after 25 years. It’s both pragmatic and humane.