Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

Envisioning an end to ‘death by incarceration’


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Envisioning an end to ‘death by incarceration’

  • Curtis Brooks didn’t kill anyone. So why is he labeled a murderer for life?

  • Texas DA who sent woman to prison for five years for voting made her own election mistake

  • One year after Cook County bail reform, the number of people in jail is going up, not down

  • Racial profiling in Louisiana, including in marijuana arrests

  • Philadelphia agrees to settlement to curb asset forfeiture

  • Don’t think the criminal legal system is racist? Over 100 studies that might change your mind

In the Spotlight

Spotlight: Envisioning an end to ‘death by incarceration’

A new report from the Abolitionist Law Center looks at life without parole (LWOP), or “death by incarceration,” sentences in Pennsylvania. The state sends more people to prison for the rest of their lives than any other state except Florida, which has twice the population, and is one of five states that account for more than half of all LWOP sentences nationwide. Philadelphia alone has sent nearly 2,700 people to prison to die, more than any other single jurisdiction in the country. Internationally, Philadelphia’s use of LWOP sentences would exceed that of any country in the world. Across the state, over 5,300 people are serving LWOP sentences and 800 more have died in the state’s prisons since 1980. [Abolitionist Law Center]

Life without parole sentences in the state are also horrifying in their racial imbalance. While only 11 percent of Pennsylvania’s residents are Black, Black people are nearly half of those in prison and more than two-thirds of those sentenced to die in prison. Black Pennsylvanians receive this punishment 18 times more often, and Latinx Pennsylvanians five times more often, than their white counterparts. And many of those sentenced to die in prison were young when sentenced: More than half the people serving LWOP sentences in Pennsylvania were younger than 25 when they entered prison. A full quarter were sentenced before they turned 21. [Abolitionist Law Center]

The Abolitionist Law Center uses the term “death by incarceration” in its report. The authors of the report explain that “it is the preferential term selected by incarcerated people that we work with who are serving these sentences, and we are a movement-lawyering organization that is accountable to the movements we work with.” Using this term also focuses on the “ultimate fact of the sentence” and “invokes the social death experienced by the incarcerated.” Finally, use of the “death by incarceration” label, while restricted to technical life without parole sentences for purposes of the report, can also be extended to those sentences that, while not defined as ending with death, are long enough to guarantee that outcome. [Abolitionist Law Center]

The explosion of death by incarceration sentences in Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, has been the product of the transformed sentencing landscapes of the 1980s and 1990s that made punishments increasingly harsh. When people in prison launched a national strike last month, one of their 10 demands was the possibility of rehabilitation and parole for all people in prison and an end to death by incarceration sentences. [Jean Trounstine / Truthout]

In its 2017 report on life sentences, the Sentencing Project found that 1 in every 7 people in prison in the U.S. was serving a life (with or without parole) or virtual life sentence. While the pool of people serving life had quadrupled since 1984, the increase was even greater for life without parole sentences. By 2016, over 50,000 people across the country were serving live without parole. And while some have argued that LWOP has allowed for the decline in the use of the death penalty, most LWOP sentences cannot be attributed to this. As professors Jordan Steiker and Carol Steiker write, “the number of capital defendants affected by LWOP’s introduction would still be dwarfed by the number of noncapital defendants affected by its widespread adoption and use.” The vast majority of those who have received LWOP sentences in recent decades are people who would have received less, not more, harsh punishments at other times. [Sentencing Project]

The effect of life without parole sentences on the numbers of people in prison is clear. The punishment also has consequences for sentencing for less serious offenses. In his 2011 article “How Should We Punish Murder?”, Professor Jonathan Simon wrote of the “inflationary effect” that the punishments for the most serious crimes have on punishments for all other offenses. Murder, punished with death or a life sentence, Simon writes, “establishes the top of the penal scale.” And “the high price for murder, at the very least, makes it far easier to set high sentences for all manner of less serious offenses. If murderers serve 10 or 20 years, one is not likely to see repeat burglars or drug traffickers serving for decades. It follows that where murder punishments are extreme, there is the potential and perhaps an inexorable pull toward more severe punishments for all the lesser crimes; and where murder punishments are moderate, the overall array of punishments will be moderate.” [Jonathan Simon / Marquette Law Review]

In 2015, Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project cited Simon’s work in his call for a 20-year cap on prison sentences in the federal system.”[B]ecause sentencing structures are proportional,” Mauer said, “such a shift would likely reduce excessive sentences even at lower levels of offense severity.” [Marc Mauer / Sentencing Project]

The Abolitionist Law Center’s report discusses a “multi-strategy, movement-building approach” to abolish death by incarceration sentences in Pennsylvania. State legislators have introduced a bill that would make people serving life sentences eligible for parole after 15 years in prison. If passed, the legislation would make two-thirds of those serving life eligible for consideration. [Samantha Melamed / Philadelphia Enquirer]  In Philadelphia, the expansion of the conviction review unit idea to encompass cases of excessive sentencing has taken root under District Attorney Larry Krasner, who ran for office on a decarceration platform and has since made clear his desire to “bring balance back to sentencing.” [Maura Ewing / Slate]

Stories From The Appeal

Illustration by Simone Noronha

Curtis Brooks Didn’t Kill Anyone. So Why Is He Labeled a Murderer for Life? A man sentenced to die in prison is inciting debate over ‘felony murder’ rules in Colorado. [Katie Rose Quandt]

Texas DA Who Sent Woman to Prison for Five Years for Voting Made Her Own Election Mistake. Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson prosecuted Crystal Mason for casting an illegal ballot. But Wilson escaped charges for a possible election violation. [Steven Yoder]

Stories From Around the Country

One year after Cook County bail reform, the number of people in jail is going up, not down: Last year, the chief judge of Cook County ordered reforms to the county’s bail system, so that “no defendant is held in custody prior to trial solely because the defendant cannot afford to post bail.” A report released yesterday by the Chicago Community Bond Fund states that while there was a significant decline in the number of people jailed pretrial immediately after the order, the decrease has not continued over time. Instead, the number of people in jail has increased since December 2017, a few months after the order went into effect. Currently, about 2,700 people in jail, or about 40 percent, are there because they cannot pay the bond set by judges. The chief judge’s office insists that this represents an “evolution,” explaining it by the fact that 78 percent of people in jail on bail face charges that involve violence or guns or that are “persons-related.” According to the report, a larger percentage of people are being denied bond outright than in the first month of the order, and a smaller percentage of people are being released without paying bail. [Olivia Stovicek / Injustice Watch]

Racial profiling in Louisiana, including in marijuana arrests: A new Southern Poverty Law Center report on racial profiling in Louisiana states that a Black person’s chances of being arrested for marijuana possession are three times greater than that of a white person, despite equal rates of use for both groups. For several police departments, the arrest rate disparities were even greater: In Baton Rouge, police were six times more likely to arrest a Black person for marijuana possession than a white person. More than a third of the police departments surveyed by SPLC “admitted they have no policy on racial profiling.” Black people make up 31 percent of the state’s adult population but 54 percent of police arrests and 68 percent of adults who are in prison. [Emily Lane / Times-Picayune]

Philadelphia agrees to settlement to curb asset forfeiture: The City of Philadelphia has agreed to a settlement that will drastically reduce the reach of its asset forfeiture program. The libertarian Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit in 2014 on behalf of a couple whose home was seized after their son was arrested selling $40 worth of drugs outside it. The lawsuit, converted to a class action last year, alleged violations of residents’ constitutional rights and an illegal profit incentive, as forfeiture revenue went to police and district attorneys’ budgets. Under two binding consent decrees, the Philadelphia district attorney and police department will now no longer be allowed to use forfeiture revenue for payroll expenses. The city can also no longer seize property for simple drug possession or seize small amounts of cash without accompanying arrests or evidence in a criminal case and forfeiture hearings will now be run by judges. In 2014, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that over the previous decade Philadelphia had seized assets worth $64 million, more than Brooklyn and Los Angeles combined. [C.J. Ciaramella / Reason]

Don’t think the criminal legal system is racist? Over 100 studies that might change your mind: For those who question whether there is systemic racism in the operation of criminal justice in this country, Radley Balko now has an extensive rejoinder in the form of a roundup of the evidence that shows racial bias at every stage of the process. Balko organizes the evidence into 10 categories that include policing, prosecutors’ exercise of discretion in charging and plea bargaining, drug charges, sentencing, solitary confinement, and pardons, commutations, and parole. He describes the “deep skepticism on the right of any assertion that the criminal-justice system is racially biased” and how this ignores the history and goals of the system that we have, which was “built, honed and firmly established during the Jim Crow era—an era almost everyone, conservatives included, will concede rife with racism.” [Radley Balko / Washington Post]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at tips@theappeal.org. A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.

Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.