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.
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.
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.
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.
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.