Six Incarcerated People Challenging Lifetime Ban on Parole for Those Convicted of Felony Murder
October 25, 2021, Harrisburg, PA ‒ A lawsuit brought by six people serving mandatory Death-By-Incarceration sentences, commonly known as Life Without Parole, will go before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which will decide if a lawsuit challenging the practice can proceed. Represented by the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and Center for Constitutional Rights, they seek an end to the prohibition on parole for those serving life sentences under the state’s felony murder rule.
The felony murder rule, which exists in forty-four states, holds a person liable for murder if the person participates in a felony that leads to a death, even if the person plays no direct role in the death or does not intend or anticipate it. The application of the rule varies from state to state. In Pennsylvania, people found guilty are automatically sentenced to life, and a separate provision of state law prohibits parole eligibility for anyone serving life.
Scott v. PA Board of Probation and Parole, filed in July 2020, is the first case of its kind in the country. It argues that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for those who did not kill or intend to kill do not serve any legitimate governmental interest and are illegally cruel under the Pennsylvania constitution. They join a movement of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated advocates and family members in using the term Death By Incarceration, which they say is the true impact of these sentences.
“We know that people are more than their worst moments in life,” said Nikki Grant, Policy Director of Amistad Law Project. “Our clients are simply asking for a chance to demonstrate to the Parole Board how they have changed. Everyone deserves the opportunity to show how they have rehabilitated themselves, that they can be redeemed and become an asset to their community.”
All of the people bringing the case were convicted in their late teens or early 20s. Though none directly caused or intended the death of the victim, they have spent between 24 and 48 years in prison ‒ the majority of their lives. Marie Scott, for example, was 19 when she robbed a gas station with a person who killed the attendant. Another plaintiff, Tyreem Rivers, was 18 when he grabbed the purse of an elderly woman who fell as a result. She was hospitalized and died two weeks later from pneumonia she had contracted in the hospital. Unless their legal challenge succeeds or the law is otherwise changed, these six people will almost certainly die in prison.
Earlier this year, a lower court ruled that the plaintiffs, and the more than 1,100 others in Pennsylvania serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences for felony murder, are not even allowed to challenge the lifetime prohibition on parole. Their attorneys will urge the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to overturn this decision, so that their clients may proceed with their lawsuit.
“Consigning anybody to die in prison is a disgraceful practice. Imposing this indignity on an overwhelmingly Black and Brown population on the scale that Pennsylvania does is a severe human rights violation and a primary mechanism for enforcing an apartheid justice system,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “Our movement intends to end this practice, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowing this lawsuit to go forward would be an important step in the right direction.”
Pennsylvania’s Death-By-Incarceration sentencing scheme both reflects and exacerbates the racial disparities endemic to the U.S. criminal justice and penal systems. While only 11 percent of Pennsylvania’s population is Black, approximately 70 percent of people serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences for felony murder are Black. Overall in the state, Black people are sentenced to Death By Incarceration at a rate 18 times higher, and Latinx people at a rate five times higher, than white people.
While this lawsuit focuses on a subset of people in Pennsylvania serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences, both the plaintiffs and their attorneys see it as a challenge to a system that frequently condemns people to die in prison. Even more so than imprisonment for non-violent drug offenses, harsh sentencing for more serious crimes drives mass incarceration. Indeed, advocates say heavy use of the Death-By-Incarceration sentence is perhaps the most distinctive and emblematic feature of the U.S. system of mass incarceration.
“Prolonged incarceration serves no legitimate public purpose and is inherently cruel and dehumanizing,” said Samah Sisay, attorney and Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “This case is part of ongoing abolitionist efforts to end Death-By-Incarceration sentences and gives Pennsylvania a chance to prioritize redemption and liberation by providing predominantly Black and aging people a chance to be released from prisons.”
Pennsylvania is a global leader in Death-By-Incarceration sentences, which the U.S. Supreme Court has said are akin to the death penalty in their severity and irrevocability. In Pennsylvania, 5,200 people are serving such sentences, giving the state the country’s highest per capita rate and accounting for 10 percent of the country’s total. Philadelphia county alone has more people serving these sentences than 45 states – and more than any country other than the United States. In fact, Philadelphia’s rate of Death By Incarceration is higher than the overall incarceration rate of 140 countries.
Several legal organizations filed amicus briefs in support of the lawsuit. The MacArthur Justice Center submitted a brief that focuses on the racial disparities in Death-By-Incarceration sentences for felony murder; The Sentencing Project, which seeks an end to “extreme punishments,” submitted a brief, along with the International Human Rights Law Clinic at Berkeley Law and the Andy and Gwen Stern Community Lawyering Clinic at Drexel Law, that addresses the unconstitutionality of the lifetime parole ban and describes how such sentencing practices are outside the international norm; Seton Hall Center for Social Justice Eighth Amendment Scholars submitted a brief explaining why the lifetime ban on parole for this class of people violates the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment; and the Defender Association of Philadelphia’s brief explores the capacity of people to evolve in prison and the positive influence that paroled “lifers” can have on communities.
The Abolitionist Law Center is a public interest law firm inspired by the struggle of political and politicized prisoners, and organized for the purpose of abolishing class and race based mass incarceration in the United States. Abolitionist Law Center litigates on behalf of people whose human rights have been violated in prison, educates the general public about the evils of mass incarceration, and works to develop a mass movement against the American punishment system by building alliances and nurturing solidarity across social divisions. Follow us on social media: Facebook, Twitter: @AbolitionistLC.
Amistad Law Project is a public interest law center that fights for the human rights of people in our community by providing free and low-cost legal services to Philadelphians and those incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s prisons. Additionally, we advocate for laws and policies that reflect our vision for a new justice paradigm and organize events and activities to educate the public on their rights and the law. Amistad’s vision is to abolish the prison industrial complex and create alternative systems of accountability and healing while reducing the harm of the system in the meantime. Follow Amistad Law Project on social media: facebook.com/AmistadLaw, @AmistadLaw on Twitter and Instagram
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.