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Racial disparities plague Pennsylvania’s life-without-parole system — but can it be fixed?

Black Pennsylvanians are sentenced to life-without-parole at a rate 18 times higher than white ones. Advocates say it should be recognized as a "major human rights issue."

An inmate at SCI Graterford, a recently closed state prison in Montgomery County.
An inmate at SCI Graterford, a recently closed state prison in Montgomery County.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / File Photograph

For State Sen. Sharif Street, the most promising sign in his quixotic bid to reform Pennsylvania's life-without-parole system came in the form of a call from Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-backed libertarian political advocacy group.

"It was some surprise when they sought us out," he said. "It's my first time being on the same side of an issue with them."

Over the past year, Street, a Democrat from North Philadelphia, has been telling anyone who will listen that a change is overdue. Pennsylvania's murder rate ranks 25th in the nation. Yet, courts in the state sentence people to life without parole at a rate that's among the highest in the country, and more than double the national average. Street introduced a bill last year that would allow lifers to be considered for parole after 15 years — a move that would make 64 percent of lifers eligible for that consideration.

A report released Tuesday on the state's 5,300-strong lifer population from the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Center attempts to unpack the scope of this issue and add fuel to Street's initiative. It uncovers stark racial disparities: black Pennsylvanians are sentenced to life at a rate 18 times higher than white ones. It finds a disproportionate impact on young people: More than half of lifers were 25 or younger at commitment. And, it explores the special case of Philadelphia, the nation's leader in life-without-parole sentencing, where one in 294 black residents is serving a life sentence.

It also examines the consequences of a graying lifer population: One-third of lifers are considered "geriatric" by the Corrections Department, and incarcerating them costs an estimated $86 million per year. Consequently, the number of lifers dying in prison each year has grown exponentially, from an average of seven per year in the 1980s to 38 per year since 2010.

Bret Grote, one of the report's authors, said its goal is simple: "So it can be recognized as a major human rights issue." He's part of a statewide movement, Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, that will hold an Oct. 2 protest in Harrisburg.

The report also highlights personal stories of transformation — like Philip Ocampo, who was 18 when he participated in a robbery that became a murder when his codefendant shot and killed a man. Now, he mentors teens, works as an aide in a prison special needs unit, volunteers as a hospice worker, and trains puppies for people with disabilities.

>> READ MORE: More people than ever are dying in prison. Their caregivers? Other inmates

Among the conclusions is that commutation — a mechanism that once released dozens of lifers each year — is broken. The system requires a unanimous recommendation from a board that includes the lieutenant governor and attorney general, followed by the governor's approval. The board has released only eight lifers in the past two decades.

Most recently, on Aug. 9, the Board of Pardons voted on whether to grant 32 lifers public hearings. It denied all but three the opportunity to make their case.

One of those who was rejected was George Trudel, one of 1,169 lifers sentenced for felony murder — that is, participating in a felony that leads to a death. A friend of Trudel's stabbed a man during an argument, and Trudel was implicated. The killer, Robert Barrett, was released after just seven years. Trudel has served more than 30.

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

Street said he's particularly concerned about such situations, which are not uncommon because both third-degree murder and manslaughter carry terms far shorter than felony murder's mandatory life. "People recognize the inequities in the system and some of the injustices," he said. He said his legislation could also bring relief to some of the women serving life sentences for killing their abusive partners — crimes that today would likely be charged as third-degree murder or manslaughter.

"This will get the Board of Probation and Parole to look at their cases with an eye for justice as we see it today," he said.

Although Street said there's real bipartisan support for the bill, he declined to identify any Republican backers. But Americans for Prosperity has circulated a letter of support to state senators. "Denying elderly, sick, or well-behaved inmates the possibility of parole is not just costly but is an injustice to individuals who pose little risk to the public and could be reunited with their families and contributing to society," AFP state director Beth Ann Mumford said in a statement.

The Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank, is also circulating a brief advocating for the legislation. "This is a commonsense measure," senior policy analyst Bob Dick said in an email.

The bill has been sitting in the Senate Judiciary Committee for nearly a year, but Street, a committee member, expects it could finally be voted out in October. However, passing it out of the Republican-run General Assembly with just eight session days remaining is a long shot.

"Even if the committee members approved this bill, it's going to have a tough time getting a vote in the Senate," noted a spokesperson for State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "Most likely, it will have to be reintroduced next session."