Life Sentences Lock Away Too Many People And Too Much Potential
Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.
Yesterday in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, hundreds gathered to call on state Attorney General Josh Shapiro to “show mercy” and increase his support for clemency. The state’s clemency process allows even a single member of the Board of Pardons to block a recommendation to the governor. Shapiro is one of the five members of the board, and local advocates have pointed out that he has frequently voted to oppose clemency.
Pennsylvania has over 5,000 people sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in the state’s prisons and among the nation’s highest rates of life without parole per capita. The county of Philadelphia alone has more people sentenced to life without parole than any other nation in the world.
Last week, the Sentencing Project released a new report highlighting the recent, in historical terms, growth in the use of life sentences in the United States. There are more people serving life sentences in the U.S. than the total number of people in prison in 1970. Although the total number of people in prison went down a tiny amount from 2003 and 2016, the number of life sentences went up by 16 percent. And the number of life without the possibility of parole sentences went up by 59 percent.
Even as widening circles of people acknowledge mass incarceration as a crisis, a specific focus on life and other extreme sentences has been slower to come. And in a state like Pennsylvania, where clemency is one of the avenues so needed for reckoning with the toll of extreme sentencing, procedural obstacles and individual votes, like those by Shapiro, a Democrat, have prevented that.
A comfort with life without parole sentences, or sentences that are so long that they guarantee or nearly guarantee one’s death in prison, is still a part of the Democratic political mainstream. As Ben Miller and Daniel Harawa pointed out last month in Slate, even Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the furthest left of the presidential candidates and regular critics of our criminal legal system, default to life without parole as an appropriate alternative to the death penalty.
Increasingly, it has fallen to those intimately familiar with the prison system to describe how these sentences waste human potential.
In 2018, Darnell Epps, a Cornell University student who along with his brother Darryl spent 17 years in New York state prisons, wrote about his personal growth while incarcerated and how much he owed to the men who guided him in prison. “In prison, we shined because of, not despite, our circumstances, especially the presence of the ‘old-timers’ who helped guide us to our coming-of-age,” he wrote in the New York Times. “We owe them tremendous credit.”
The “50-, 75- and 100-year minimum sentences” that the men he knows are serving mean that their contributions are confined within the prison walls, he wrote. “When I hear of all the gun violence on Chicago’s South Side, for instance, I can’t help wondering what would happen if Illinois’s many reformed old-timers, who hail from those neighborhoods, were granted parole with a mission of working to reduce the violence.” People in prison who have so much to offer should be out instead, so that “there can be more stories like mine and Darryl’s, and fewer young people making the mistakes that get them sent to prison in the first place.”
This month, Robert Ehrenberg wrote in the Albany Times-Union about his experience of serving a death-by-incarceration sentence and the need for New York to pass elder parole legislation. One in every four people sent to prison in New York from Long Island is serving a life sentence. Ehrenberg, sentenced to 50 years to life after he shot and killed a man during a robbery in 1992, is one of them. He wrote about the “devastating harm” his actions that day caused and how “there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about that awful day.”
Ehrenberg described the larger collective of which he is a part. “Year after year, incarcerated people dwell upon our past mistakes and the serious harm we caused that can never be reversed. We try to do all we can to transform our lives and the lives of those around us. This is especially true for the thousands of us serving life sentences with little hope and few, if any, avenues for release.”
He wrote about his efforts to grow, change, and serve those around him. “Over the last 27 years of my incarceration, I have channeled the accumulation of my regrets into my rehabilitation and into trying to positively change the lives of those around me. I immersed myself in higher education and received two college degrees with top honors. I’ve used the knowledge I acquired to educate, tutor, and mentor others by developing pre-college algebra courses. I’ve taught basic math to countless of my younger peers who will one day be free even though I’ll likely never have that same opportunity.” And he outlined the grim math of his likely longevity and his sentence if reforms are not passed: “I am currently 61 years old and not eligible to appear before the New York State Parole Board for a chance at release until 2042. By then, I’ll be 83 years old, an age I will likely never see.”