State Sen. Sharif Street lives a block from the North Philadelphia house he and his three siblings grew up in at 18th and Diamond Streets. He recalls being dropped off for first grade the first year his father, former Mayor John F. Street, started on City Council, 1980.
He went to Central High School, then Morehouse College, where he was president of the student senate and an Academic All-American track and field athlete. His best event was steeplechase. He graduated cum laude.
He got his law degree at Penn. He practiced law in Philly for 18 years with firms including Zarwin Baum and the former Wolf Block.
He and his wife, April, a Realtor, have five children ranging in age from 15 to 22. Three are in college.
He's 44, a freshman Democrat, elected in 2016. His Senate district, which he describes as shaped "like a man signaling for a touchdown," runs roughly up North Broad from Poplar to the city line.
He's currently traveling the state pushing legislation (Senate Bill 942) to end, for some Pennsylvania inmates, life sentences with no chance of parole. He's also pushing the issue on social media (passsb942.com). And working with Philly Democratic Rep. Jason Dawkins, who first introduced the measure in the House (House Bill 135).
Columnist John Baer sat down with Street in his state Capitol office.
What's the lifer issue you're looking to change, and why?
Well, I'm troubled by so many serving life sentences under circumstances that don't seem fair. It was brought to my attention from people talking about it in my neighborhood.
I'm from a neighborhood, unfortunately, with some of the highest conviction rates anywhere in the commonwealth. But it's not right that in some instances, people involved in a crime that results in death can end up getting more time than the murderer.
A person involved in a crime that results in a death he didn't cause is charged with murder 2, sentenced under the felony-murder rule and likely gets life without parole.
Say two guys go to rob a store. One goes inside with a gun while the other stays in the car to drive. The guy with the gun struggles with the clerk and kills him.
The actual killer is charged with murder 1, but because there was a struggle, can plea-bargain down to murder 3, voluntary manslaughter, and become eligible for parole.
So, the killer gets 25 years in jail, but then gets to come home. The driver sits in jail with no possibility of parole.
How many men and women are serving life sentences under such circumstances?
Over 500. There are more than 5,000 serving life without parole in Pennsylvania. So, 10 percent of them fall into this category, people who didn't kill anybody.
Are there other categories?
There's a second group of people. Under today's laws, if a woman is being abused by her husband and he beats her, say, every day, even to the point of death, and she kills him for fear that he's going to kill her, she can assert the "battered-wife defense," which will either result in murder 1 being dropped to murder 3, or no conviction at all.
But in the '70s and '80s, that woman would have been sentenced to murder 1 every time, with no possibility of parole. Currently, there's no mechanism to allow our parole board to release her.
Which is what your legislation would provide?
My legislation doesn't ask for anybody to be released. It would just give the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole the ability to review these types of cases and let go the people that need to be let go.
And, look, the board is not known as a bastion of liberalism. It's a fairly moderate group. If anything, it'll be a little conservative on who's to be released. But it gives them the authority to review cases, and a mechanism to correct errors or quirks in the law.
You say there's an economic component to all this as well?
We spend roughly $33 million housing people serving life without parole who didn't kill anybody. It's roughly $42,000 per year to house a prisoner. However, as prisoners age, the medical costs go up and a lot of these lifers have been serving a long time.
The average cost for a senior-citizen lifer is $70,000 to $80,000 a year, more for those with acute medical problems. These are people least likely to recidivate and most costly to taxpayers.
So, releasing them is sound fiscal policy that can save $160 million over five years — money that can be used for debt service or economic development or tax reduction — with very little public safety implications.
Are there other states that do what you want to do?
Pennsylvania's one of a few states, less than a dozen, that have life without the possibility of parole. The majority of states have a program like I'm proposing. All we're doing is giving jurisdiction to review these cases.
Why hasn't this happened here before?
I think no one has ever spent a lot of time and energy talking about it. And as I spend time with Sen. [Stewart] Greenleaf [R., Montgomery], who I'm working with on a number of criminal justice issues, he says that many of the more conservative members haven't looked at this in the way that they should.
Have you gotten any sense from fellow senators as to their receptivity to this?
A lot of members, Republicans and Democrats, have told me, 'You're going about this the right way.' I suspect at some point there's going to be a dam break of public support and you'll see a flood of co-sponsors.
I think this is going to be like medical marijuana was. For a long time, there were just one or two members, then all of a sudden it was just a thing that should be done.
Talking about releasing people from prison can get a little dicey with the pubic, yes?
Yes. But any inmate still has to serve at least 15 years before applying. I think we're building bipartisan ideological support. Whether that can translate into political support is up to us and how well we educate the public.