February 8, 2021, Harrisburg, PA – Death By Incarceration, also known as life without the possibility of parole, is a term coined by a movement of advocates working to end the practice, including many who are currently or formerly incarcerated. Under Pennsylvania law, people convicted under the “felony murder” rule are automatically sentenced to life imprisonment – even if they did not take a life, or did not intend to take a life in the course of the crime – and, by virtue of their life sentences, prohibited from eligibility for parole. A lawsuit filed by civil rights organizations says such mandatory sentences are unconstitutionally cruel under the Pennsylvania constitution. Today, lawyers representing people serving mandatory Death By Incarceration sentences in Pennsylvania argued in court against the state’s attempt to dismiss the case.
“Many of us bear a great sense of remorse for the roles we’ve played in having such a negative impact on the lives of the people we’ve wrongfully victimized, their families, and the communities in which the crimes occurred,” said plaintiff Tyreem Rivers, who has served 24 years of a Death By Incarceration sentence for a robbery committed when he was 18. “I can honestly say we no longer think or act as we once did before having been sentenced to life without parole.”
Vast racial disparities exist within Pennsylvania’s Death By Incarceration sentencing scheme; 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. The complete impossibility of parole for people serving life sentences in Pennsylvania has also contributed to the aging demographic of the state’s prison population, with over 10,000 people over the age of 50. The plaintiffs in the case, already at higher risk because of their age, also report inadequate COVID-19 testing and the inability to physically distance at the facilities in which they are imprisoned. Tyreem Rivers recently tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Death By Incarceration sentences for felony murder convictions are imposed in an egregiously racially-disparate manner. While only 11 percent of Pennsylvania’s population is Black, approximately 70 percent of people serving Death By Incarceration sentences for this offense are Black,” said Quinn Cozzens, staff attorney with the Abolitionist Law Center. “It is a sentence that functions to permanently exclude people from primarily poor, Black communities from ever returning to these communities, no matter how much benefit they could provide or how deserving they are of a second chance.”
Each of the six plaintiffs in the case is serving a Death By Incarceration sentence after being convicted in their late teens or early 20s. Though none of the plaintiffs directly caused or intended the death of the victim, they have each spent between 23 and 47 years in prison—the majority of their lives. Unless the law that prohibits parole for those serving life sentences is struck down by the courts in relation to people convicted of felony murder, they will likely die in prison.
“Two of our plaintiffs were granted commutation by the Board of Pardons but are still waiting for Governor Wolf to allow them to come home,” said Amistad Law Project Executive Director Kris Henderson. “There are so many people who are serving this sentence who could come home and contribute to our communities. We need reform at all levels of government, including allowing people who didn't kill or intend to kill to go before the parole board.”
The lawsuit argues that Death By Incarceration sentences serve no legitimate penological interest when applied to individuals who do not kill or intend to kill as part of their crime, and are unconstitutionally cruel. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that Death By Incarceration setences are akin to the death penalty in their severity and irrevocability.
“These sentences are cruel not only because of the experience of lifelong imprisonment without any hope of release, but also because they fail to serve any penological purpose, which the law requires,” said Pardiss Kebriaei, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “A blanket prohibition on the possibility of parole for people like our clients, given the absence of any public safety rationale for their continued imprisonment, the decades they have already served, and their lack of any intent for the outcome of the crimes, is only arbitrarily, excessively punitive, and should be struck down.”
Pennsylvania is an outlier within the United States and around the world in terms of the number and rate of prisoners serving Death By Incarceration sentences. At approximately 5,200 people, it has the second-highest number of people serving Death By Incarceration sentences in the U.S. and accounts for 10 percent of the total number of Death By Incarceration sentences in the country. It is one of only six states that does not allow for the possibility of parole for people serving life sentences. Philadelphia county, in particular, has more people serving Death By Incarceration sentences than 45 states—and more than any country in the world. Philadelphia’s rate of Death By Incarceration is higher than the overall incarceration rate of 140 countries.
The case was brought by the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
For more information about the case, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.
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.