By Movita Johnson-Harrell
and Bryan Lentz
Mass incarceration, community relations with the police, and the reintegration of ex-offenders into society are all hot political topics today. What has received less attention is the life-without-parole population in our prisons.
In Pennsylvania, individuals convicted of first- or second-degree murder serve life in prison with no possibility of parole. In many cases the protection of the public and the gravity of the offense dictate that these prisoners should never be released. Those for whom "life" should always mean life include cop killers and the murderers of children. Certainly the unspeakable grief of surviving family members of murder victims must always be considered in deciding the length of incarceration.
In a limited number of cases, however, where it is clear that an individual has been rehabilitated while in prison, parole should be a possibility.
Not everyone serving a life sentence actually killed someone. Some lifers were convicted for acting as a lookout or as a getaway driver when a codefendant killed someone during a robbery or other felony. Others committed their crimes as juveniles or during some long-forgotten gang rivalry in the 1970s. The fact is that there are lifers whom corrections officials, and even other members of law enforcement, would agree have become remarkable individuals who are unrecognizable when compared to the person they were when they entered prison many many years ago.
To continue to imprison those who have so completely transformed their lives when they are 60, 70, and 80 years old, at a cost of millions of dollars to taxpayers, is illogical, wasteful, and contrary to the historical values of our commonwealth.
Currently, the only option for lifers to avoid dying in prison is commutation of the sentence by the governor. The dynamics of modern politics, however, have virtually eliminated that choice. From 1967 to 1978, 335 lifers' sentences were commuted. From 2000 to 2015, only six received this benefit.
As a result, a reformed parole system, in which the parole board can decide whom to release, is the only consistent and realistic option. This process could grant parole to deserving prisoners without endangering the public. A 2011 Stanford University study found that of 860 lifers paroled from 1990 to 2010 and tracked by the university, only five committed new crimes, and none were convicted of murder.
It is also important to consider the dramatic positive impact that some released ex-offenders can have in improving community and police relations and persuading young people to turn away from crime and violence.
As the mother of a murder victim and a former prosecutor, we have witnessed firsthand the positive impact of ex-offenders as participants in programs such as the "focused deterrence" strategy now used in Philadelphia. During the execution of that strategy, ex-offenders mentor and assist some of the city's most at-risk youth and have a stunning impact in improving public safety. There are lifers in our state prison system who are ready, willing, and uniquely able to make this same priceless contribution to improving public safety.
The legislature has an opportunity to make a positive and dramatic impact on criminal justice by reforming the parole system to allow lifers in extraordinary circumstances to be considered for parole. We urge them to do so.
Movita Johnson-Harrell is the mother of Charles Johnson, who was shot to death in Philadelphia in 2011, and founder of the Charles Foundation, which was created in his honor to combat gun violence. firstname.lastname@example.org