Pennsylvania’s Crime Victim Definition Leaves Out Communities Most Affected By Crime

The state’s narrow interpretation gives too much weight to voices that support a punitive criminal legal system, advocates say.

Pennsylvania’s Crime Victim Definition Leaves Out Communities Most Affected By Crime

The state’s narrow interpretation gives too much weight to voices that support a punitive criminal legal system, advocates say.

Lorraine Haw’s brother was murdered in Philadelphia nearly 30 years ago. The man who killed him was arrested, tried, convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to death.

Haw was angry about her brother’s death. “All you feel is revenge, anger and hurt,” she said. But Haw, who speaks with kindness and passion, said she found forgiveness. A life of bitterness, she said, was one she didn’t want to wake up to every day. 

Haw is now an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty and for ending the use of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. More than 5,400 people in Pennsylvania are serving life without the possibility of parole, and the state ranks second only to Florida in the number of people sentenced to die in prison.

Like Haw, some state lawmakers agree that those serving life in prison should have an opportunity for release. In March, state Senator Sharif Street reintroduced a bill that would provide parole eligibility for some people convicted of first- and second-degree murder, or felony murder. In Pennsylvania, a conviction for felony murder—when a person dies in the commission of a felony, regardless of whether the death was intentional—results in a mandatory life without parole sentence.

“Empowering the parole board to hear these cases will allow us to join the rest of the nation in administering criminal justice that includes both redemption, where applicable, and fiscal responsibility,” Street said during a press conference in 2018.

But the bill faces opposition from the Office of Victim Advocate and the state victim advocate, Jennifer Storm, who has said victims are not in favor of the bill. According to a survey conducted by Storm’s office this year, victims have “overwhelmingly asked us to oppose this legislation,” she said in August.

Those surveyed, however, meet what advocates say is the office’s narrow definition of a victim. This can leave many people affected by crime without services and without a voice in policy matters, they say. 

“There is a wide range of views among people who have been victims of crime,” Andy Hoover, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said. “But the office’s policy advocacy has consistently failed to reflect that diversity of thought and has leaned toward more incarceration.”

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The Office of Victim Advocate is mandated by the state government “to represent the rights and interests of crime victims before the Board of Probation and Parole and the Department of Corrections.”

To be considered a victim who can receive services from the office, however, the person must meet certain criteria. For example, the perpetrator of the crime must be caught, arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to state prison or be under state supervision for someone to register with the office as a victim. 

This alone excludes many people affected by crime: In the 10 years between 2008 and 2017, more than 2,200 murders in Pennsylvania did not result in an arrest—nearly one-third of murders in the state during that time.

Nearly half of the state’s unsolved murders, or more than 1,000 deaths, occurred in Philadelphia. And more than half of all people sentenced to die in prison in the state came from the city. By definition, these victims’ families are not victims entitled to services through Storm’s office. 

“A fair victim advocate cannot be only a voice for middle-class people from the suburbs,” Hoover said. “A fair victim advocate would understand that communities that are wrestling with crime are also often communities that are damaged by mass incarceration.”

Storm’s office also disregards voices like Haw’s, advocates say, in favor of those who support a punitive approach to criminal justice. “By tending to lift up more of the voices that want more of the retributive justice model, they can heavily skew the opinion of [Storm’s office], which carries significant weight [with lawmakers] in a way that isn’t necessarily indicative of all victims,” Quinn Cozzens, a staff attorney at the Abolitionist Law Center, said.

In response to Street’s bill, introduced last year, the Office of Victim Advocate sent a survey in January to 800 registered victims, asking for their input on parole eligibility for people convicted of murder. A little more than 300, or less than 40 percent, of those surveys were returned. More than 91 percent of respondents were opposed to parole eligibility for people convicted of second-degree murder.

Storm and her office have come out in opposition of Street’s bill based on those survey results. “[The victims] came back saying they absolutely, strongly oppose any form of parole eligibility” for those who have committed first- and second-degree murder, Storm said in August.

In an interview with The Appeal, Storm said she sought input from registered victims in this case because Street’s bill is retroactive in part, meaning it would affect cases where the perpetrator has already been convicted. It would be unfair, she said, to take into account the opinions of victims of crimes whose perpetrator was not arrested, charged, and sentenced when considering policies that will affect those who have been through the system. 

“If you don’t have an offender who is apprehended and incarcerated for the murder of a loved one, how can you have an opinion on this?” Storm said. It’s “horrific and incredibly traumatizing” to be a homicide survivor whose perpetrator is never apprehended, but “how could they lend an opinion to an experience that is not theirs?” 

Storm said if Street’s bill was purely prospective, meaning it only affected future cases, she would do more to reach out to victims who are not registered with the office. She told The Appeal, too, that she supports eliminating the mandatory life without parole sentence for second-degree murder in cases where the person did not directly cause a death. However, she would not support a bill that eliminates the mandatory life sentence for people who directly cause a death.

While banning life without parole in some cases would be a welcome change, it does not go as far as advocates like Haw would like. “We want these lifers to have the chance to stand in front of the parole board and look at them and see who’s been redeemed and who hasn’t,” said Haw. “Give them a chance instead of letting them rot in prison.”

Street’s bill faces a daunting uphill battle in the Republican-controlled legislature. In September, the House Judiciary Committee approved a package of bills to reinstitute mandatory minimum sentences for certain gun offenses.

For Haw, Street’s bill would mean the man who killed her brother would have a chance at redemption. It also would give her son, who was sentenced to life without parole for being an accomplice to a burglary that resulted in his co-defendant killing someone, a chance at freedom.

Currently, the only option for reprieve from a life sentence is through the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, which has largely stagnated over the last 30 to 40 years. Between 1971 and 1978, the board recommended 267 commutations from life sentences. The board has issued fewer than 230 recommendations in the more than 40 years since. 

“[I am an activist] not only for my son but also for that young man who killed my brother and also all those who are incarcerated who shouldn’t be there after so many years,” Haw said. “Especially after they’ve been transformed, changed and they’ve become better people than when they went in there.”

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