The Movement to Parole all Criminals and the Slippery Slope

On this page, we will expose the movement to end life without parole (LWOP) for all offenders in the US and how this movement has already started with juveniles. Already, there are many organizations and activists who have openly expressed their desire to end LWOP for all offenders. Legislation that would abolish LWOP has already been introduced. Right now, the anti-LWOP movement is having little success. However, this might change if juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) is abolished. If juvenile offender advocates are successful in their effort to reduce our loved ones’ murderers’ sentences, they will attempt to do the same with adults.

Currently, in the US, there is a movement to end LWOP for juvenile offenders. It started immediately after the Supreme Court abolished the juvenile death penalty in 2005. The movement to end JLWOP and reduce juvenile criminals’ sentences is extremely well-funded. Unfortunately, many activists aiming to end juvenile LWOP have little concern for victims, promoting laws that harm victims and using hurtful propaganda tactics. NOVJM was founded to give families of murder victims a voice.

Many of the activists seeking to end JLWOP do not intend to stop there–they want to abolish LWOP for all criminals. According to one activist, juveniles are the “low hanging fruit.” While the movement to end all LWOP has been largely unsuccessful, the movement to end JLWOP has made significant changes around the country, due to the significant amount of power and money behind it. These changes have been made at the expense of victims’ rights and public safety and have inflicted severe harm on victims. And if juvenile LWOP is completely abolished, these harms will next be inflicted on victims of adult criminals.

There are already many organizations and activists who have openly proclaimed their interest in ending LWOP for all criminals. They have even introduced legislation to abolish all LWOP in several states, though their legislative efforts have been unsuccessful. Below is a list of just some of the many organizations who are open to abolishing LWOP. There are many more examples of open anti-LWOP activists and even more examples of hidden anti-LWOP activists, that is, those who really do intend to end all LWOP but will only announce their intentions when the initial steps in the process are completed. One of those initial steps is abolishing JLWOP.

Listed below are anti-LWOP bills and anti-LWOP articles and books.

Organizations and individuals who want to ban LWOP


Abolitionist Law Center

What it is

According to the Prison Activist Resource Center, “The ALC 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.”

The organization’s anti-LWOP position

ALC wrote a report titled A Way Out: Abolishing Death By Incarceration in Pennsylvania. The focus of the report is LWOP sentences. The authors make it explicitly clear that their goal is to end all LWOP or as they call it “Death By Incarceration.” Excerpts can be read below. ALC also created this press release on LWOP.

Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB)

What it is

According to their website, “Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) is a statewide coalition of 70 grassroots organizations that is reducing the number of people in prisons and jails, shrinking the imprisonment system, and shifting public spending from corrections and policing to human services.”

The organization’s anti-LWOP position

CURB is campaigning to “drop LWOP.”

“LWOP is a death-in-prison sentence that almost always excludes people for compassionate release. This year, CURB authored an Elder Parole memo intended as a prelude to legislation that would end LWOP and provide a path to release for all incarcerated people serving LWOP sentences. As co-coordinators of the #DropLWOP campaign led by California Coalition for Women Prisoners, CURB staff also helps organize the coalition’s Statewide Workgroup, Legislative Workgroup, and Media Workgroup.” (Bold text added).

The Drop LWOP campaign website further explains CURB’s anti-LWOP position.

Life Without Parole is a Death Sentence. This holiday season call on the Governor to use his power of clemency – a power only he has – to commute the sentences of people with Life Without Parole (LWOP). He has already stated the Death Penalty is Unjust, Racist and Arbitrary. Now it’s time he take action to address the Other Death Penalty.” (Bold text added).

The Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration

What it is

According to their About Decarcerate PA page, “Decarcerate PA is a coalition of organizations and individuals seeking an end to mass incarceration and the harms it brings our communities.”

The organization’s anti-LWOP position


“Pennsylvania prisons hold over 5000 people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. In PA, a life sentence means your natural life–it is a sentence that condemns you to die in prison–which is why many choose to call it Death By Incarceration (DBI).

We believe that sentencing people to Death By Incarceration is a violation of their human rights and an affront to the humanity of us all. That’s why Decarcerate PAFight for Lifers, the Human Rights Coalition, and Right to Redemption are launching a campaign to end Death By Incarceration sentencing in PA.” (Bold text added).

CADBI lists their demands.

We are working to build a mass movement both inside and outside of prison to take a stand against DBI and other harsh sentencing practices. To do this, we have established three core demands for legislative change:

Parole eligibility after no more than 15 years;

Presumptive parole: people are paroled at their eligibility date, unless the prison administration can prove serious unresolved disciplinary infractions;

A maximum sentencing law that will stop the commonwealth from incarcerating people for indefinite periods of time. (Bold text added).

Fight for Lifers West

What it is

Fight for Lifers West is an organization dedicated to advocating for LWOP inmates.

The organization’s anti-LWOP position

On their home page, Fight for Lifers West writes “Our goal is to end the life sentence and represent the rights of the incarcerated.” (Bold text added).

The organization also writes the following.


We advocate for lifer inmates and their loved ones, discuss ways to effect change and offer support. We believe the Life With-Out Parole is both archaic and inhumane. It violates Article 8 of the U.S. Constitution against cruel and unusual punishment. Therefore, changes in PA law need to be implemented. We try to recruit others, enlist public support and contact members of the PA Legislature when we feel laws need to be changed. 


Fight for Lifers West is part of the anti-JLWOP movement. No doubt, a stepping stone to their ultimate goal of abolishing all LWOP.

Joe Heckel, an activist with the organization, argued to Pennsylvania’s Senate Judiciary Committee that juvenile offenders should instead be given sentences of 10 years to life.

Lets Get Free-Women and Trans Prisoner

What it is

Let’s Get Free is an organization dedicated to ending LWOP.

The organization’s anti-LWOP position

Let’s Get Free writes on their home pageWe are a group working to end Death by Incarceration (also known as life without parole sentencing), build a pathway out of the prisons back to our communities through commutation reform, support successful possibilities for people formerly and currently incarcerated, and shift to a culture of transformative justice. (Bold text added). They also write “Life sentences are death sentences in Pennsylvania.” (Bold text original).

This organization supports HB 135 and SB 942, which are discussed below.

Lifers With Optimistic Progress (LWOP)

What it is

This is an organization that advocates for inmates serving LWOP in the California State Prison Solano.

The organization’s anti-LWOP position

LWOP petitioned Governor Brown to commute LWOP sentences.

We, the undersigned, hereby request and urge you to grant commutations of sentence to all men and women serving the sentence of Life Without the Possibility of Parole to life with the possibility of parole, provided these men and women are first-time adult offenders. (Bold text added).

Petition to Governor Brown of California: Please Commute LWOP-sentences of First Time Offenders to Life – giving them an Opportunity for Parole

Until the time comes where the de facto death sentence of life without the possibility of parole is no longer an option, our only recourse is to appeal, with great urgency and sincere hearts, on behalf of those first-offense men and women who are completely without hope of redemption or the opportunity of making amends to those they have harmed. (Bold text added). We ask, therefore, that you exercise your constitutional authority and commute the sentences of all first-time offenders under your authority sentenced to life without the possibility of parole to a sentence of life with the possibility of parole.

Prison Policy Initiative

What it is

On their website, the initiative writes “The non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative produces cutting edge research to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization, and then sparks advocacy campaigns to create a more just society.” (Bold text original).

The organization’s anti-LWOP position

Senior policy analyst Jorge Renaud wrote a report titled Grading the parole release systems of all 50 states. The report explicitly states that all incarcerated people should have the chance to be paroled. “Parole systems should give every incarcerated person ample opportunity to earn release and have a fair, transparent process for deciding whether to grant it.” (Bold text added). Another report titled Eight Keys to Mercy: How to shorten excessive prison sentences calls for universal parole eligibility after 15 years.

Reconstruction. Inc

What it is

According to their Facebook page “Reconstruction is a Community Capacity Building membership &constituent led organization that governs three educational initiatives and supports the philosophy “Changing ourselves to change the world by uniting the many to defeat the few”

The organization’s anti-LWOP position

Reconstruction.Inc has a program called “Fight For Lifers (FEL).

Fight for Lifers (FFL) is a program of Reconstruction, Inc. that addresses the concept of Life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for men and women in the state of Pennsylvania. (Bold text original). At present, there is no chance for people serving a life sentence to get released on Parole. FFL also addresses the issue of Juveniles being sentenced to life without parole. Finally, FFL addresses access to the courts (i.e. PCRA). Fight for Lifers (FFL) supports people serving a life sentence in PA and their families, working to abolish this type of sentencing.”(Bold text added).

Restore Justice

What it is

Restore Justice is an organization dedicated to ending life and “extreme” sentences.

The organization’s anti-LWOP position

Advocacy Work

Re:Store Justice focuses our advocacy on ending life and extreme sentencing. (Bold text added). We believe that we need to change the way we respond to violence and we are guided by those impacted most: currently and formerly incarcerated people, survivors of crime, and their communities. Through our own experiences and work, we understand that lengthy sentences do not address the needs of survivors.

If we want to end mass incarceration we cannot exclude the 40% of people in prison and jail that have committed violent offenses. The large number of people serving time for violent crime is not because of high rates of violence, it’s because of the long sentences that have increased due to a tough on crime era that have not been changed since. In a time when crime rates are at historic lows, our prison population will remain static unless we concentrate our efforts on people currently serving time for violence crimes.

In coalition with partner organizations, we fight to advance evidence-based and trauma-informed policies rooted in improving public safety, creating healthier communities, and protecting vulnerable populations. Through research and assessment, we identify health, economic, educational, social, and public safety policies that maintain inequalities between groups. We then hold our government accountable to make necessary structural changes to end life and extreme sentencing. (Bold text added).

The legislative process can seem complicated and daunting, but it shouldn’t be. Through awareness-raising campaigns and open education, we believe in providing individuals with the tools they need to make informed decisions for justice reform. An overview of the legislative process can be found here.

Sentencing Project

What it is

The Sentencing Project is an organization dedicated to reducing incarceration.

The organization’s anti-LWOP position

The Sentencing Project opposes LWOP.

The organization launched a campaign to end life imprisonment. They write “To end mass incarceration we must address life sentences. A record one of every seven people in U.S. prisons is serving a life sentence. While most have committed a violent offense, research finds that people age out of criminal behavior — producing diminishing returns for public safety.”
campaign home page

A website dedicated to their campaign, explains their position.

A record one of every seven people in U.S. prisons is serving a life sentence. While most have committed a violent offense, research finds that people age out of criminal behavior — producing diminishing returns for public safety.

The financial and moral costs of life imprisonment also burden communities by diverting vital resources from crime prevention and social intervention programs.

This country needs a crime policy rooted in research and mercy. It’s time to end life imprisonment. (Bold text added).

Senior advisor Marc Mauer and senior research analyst Ashley Nellis even authored a book in which they explain why LWOP should be abolished and all sentences should be capped at 20 years. More about this book, titled The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences can be read below. Both have also published articles laying out their anti-LWOP position which can also be read below.

Legislation to ban LWOP

Federal legislation

S.2146 “William Underwood Second Look Act”


What it would do

It would allow any federal prisoner to petition a court to review their sentence after they have served 10 years. The court would then determine if they are eligible to be released or have their sentence reduced. Offenders over 50 would enjoy a rebuttable presumption of release.

According to

“This bill allows a defendant who has served at least 10 years in prison to petition a federal court for a sentence reduction. Specifically, a court may reduce the prison term for a defendant if (1) the imposed prison term was more than 10 years; (2) the defendant has served at least 10 years in custody; and (3) the court finds that the defendant is not a danger to public safety, is ready for reentry, and the interests of justice warrant a sentence modification. The bill outlines the factors a court may consider in reducing a prison term. Further, the bill creates a rebuttable presumption of release for a defendant who is 50 years of age or older on the date of the petition.”

According to Booker’s website

U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA)

The Second Look Act would allow any individual who has served at least 10 years in federal prison to petition a court to take a “second look” at their sentence before a judge and determine whether they are eligible for a sentence reduction or release. The legislation would also create a rebuttable presumption of release for petitioners who are 50 years of age or older, meaning the burden shifts to the government to demonstrate why the petitioner should remain behind bars.

The Second Look Act would: 

Enable individuals sentenced to more than 10 years imprisonment and who have served at least 10 years to petition a court to be released.

Create a rebuttable presumption of release for petitioners who are 50 years of age or older on the date of the petition.

Establish factors for courts to consider, including whether they demonstrate a readiness for reentry and are not a danger to the safety of any person or the community.

Mandate the United States Sentencing Commission issue an annual public report detailing the effect of the provision, including the racial impact.

State legislation

Massachusetts H3358/S826 “An Act to Reduce Mass Incarceration”


Sponsors: Rep. Jay Livingstone and Sen. Joseph Boncore

What it would do

The bill would make all offenders serving life sentences eligible for parole after 25 years.

New York Senate Bill S8581/Assembly Bill A6354A (2017-2018)


Sponsors: Brad Hoylman (Senate) and David I. Weprin (Assembly)

What it would do

This bill permits the Board of Parole to evaluate all inmates over the
age of 55 who have served at least 15 years in prison for possible
parole release. It does not mandate release, but allows the Board to
make a public safety assessment to see whether an elderly inmate is safe
to be released to parole supervision even if he or she has not completed
his or her minimum sentence and to have the discretion to grant such

New York Senate Bill S2144/Assembly Bill A9040 (2019-2020)


Sponsors: Brad Hoylman (Senate) and Carmen De La Rosa (Assembly)

What it would do

This bill permits the Board of Parole to evaluate all inmates over the
age of 55 who have served at least 15 years in prison for possible
parole release.
It does not mandate release, but allows the Board to
make a public safety assessment to see whether an elderly inmate is safe
to be released to parole supervision even if he or she has not completed
his or her minimum sentence and to have the discretion to grant such
release. (Bold text added).

New York Senate Bill S15/Assembly Bill A3475


Sponsors: Brad Hoylman (Senate) and Carmen De La Rosa (Assembly)

What it would do

This bill permits the Board of Parole to evaluate all inmates over the
age of 55 who have served at least 15 years in prison for possible
parole release. It does not mandate release, but allows the Board to
make a public safety assessment to see whether an elderly inmate is safe
to be released to parole supervision even if he or she has not completed
his or her minimum sentence and to have the discretion to grant such

Pennsylvania Senate Bill 942/House Bill 135


Sponsors: Sharif Street (Senate) and Jason Dawkins (House)

What it would do

It would permit criminals sentenced to life in prison to be paroled after 15 years (Senate version) or 25-35 years (House version).

This legislation, a companion bill to HB 135 introduced by State Representative Jason Dawkins, permits an individual sentenced to life imprisonment under the laws of this Commonwealth to be considered for parole after spending at least 15 years in prison. It also extends parole eligibility retroactively to those sentenced prior to the effective date of the legislation. The bill creates no right to parole, so it will not allow our most dangerous inmates to go free. The Commonwealth’s Board of Probation and Parole will continue to responsibly reject requests for parole from those who do not deserve it, or who present too great a safety risk to the public.

Individuals who pose no risk to society should be allowed an opportunity for parole. To that end, this bill would create a chance for those individuals after 25 or 35 years, dependent upon their conviction, and would extend retroactively to anyone currently serving an eligible sentence. These individuals would still go before the Board of Probation and Parole, and would be granted parole only if they deserve it and do not present a safety risk to the public. In addition, no one convicted of murdering a law enforcement officer would be eligible for parole. With this law, we would create an Office of Re-Entry Programs to assist those who are released under these new eligibility standards.

South Dakota Senate Bill 146


Sponsors: Senators RuschJohns, and Steinhauer and Representatives DubaHealy, and Smith (Jamie)

What it would do

It would ban LWOP for all offenders who were under 26 when they committed the crimes. These young adult offenders would be able to be paroled once they turn 50.

The text reads: “A person who was sentenced to life imprisonment for an offense that was
committed when the person was twenty-five years of age or younger is thereby
eligible for parole consideration when the person reaches fifty years of age.”

Washington DC Bill 23-0127


Sponsors: Charles Allen (D),  Anita Bonds (D),  Mary Cheh (D),  Jack Evans (D),  David Grosso (I),  Kenyan McDuffie (D),  Brianne Nadeau (D),  Robert White Jr. (D),  and Vincent Gray (D)

What it does

It allows anyone serving a sentence for a crime committed under the age of 25 a chance to reduce their sentence after 15 years.

WASHINGTON –The Second Look Act of 2019, which is pending before the Council of the District of Columbia, will give violent criminals (including rapists and murderers) an opportunity to reduce their sentences after only serving 15 years in prison and will expand eligibility to adults who committed their crimes before they turned 25-years-old.   Bill 23-0127, the “Second Look Amendment Act of 2019.”

 Articles and books opposing LWOP

Below are just some of the many articles written by those wanting to restrict or eliminate LWOP. Excerpts are given to make visitors of this page familiar with anti-LWOP arguments. Articles organized by authors’ last names and the organizations names.

A Way Out
A Report On Life-Without-Parole Sentences

Abolitionist Law Center

Quinn Cozzens, ALC Staff Attorney
Bret Grote, ALC Legal Director

This report is blatantly anti-LWOP and the authors make it very clear that they want to eliminate the sentence. They refer to LWOP as “Death By Incarceration” (DBI). They argue we should abolish LWOP because: “DBI is not necessary to ensure or increase
public safety”; “DBI is a waste of resources”; “DBI does not serve victims; DBI harms the incarcerated, their families, and their communities; and “Parole eligibility is the smart policy”.


The movement organizations that we are a part of and
accountable to – the Coalition to Abolish Death By
Incarceration, Lets Get Free-Women and Trans Prisoner
Defense Committee, Human Rights Coalition, Fight for Lifers,
Decarcerate PA, Right to Redemption – we offer this report
as a modest contribution toward a new paradigm of justice,
toward parole eligibility for all lifers
, and in service of those
family members and friends of the incarcerated who will
fight with every last breath to bring their loved ones home. (Bold text added).

Vital Projects Fund provided generous support for this work,
believes in a future where life-without-parole is a relic of the
, and has shown a commitment to justice that is deep,
informed, and strategic. We thank you for that. (Bold text added).


To the more than 5,300 people serving life-without-parole sentences in Pennsylvania, condemned to “death-by-incarceration”, who survive a daily assault upon
your humanity: you are not forgotten. Whether you have
committed yourself to building the movement for justice and
liberation or are still finding your way there, accept this report
as a humble offering – building off the work of lifers and their
families – to help in a collective endeavor to do nothing less
than totally transform ourselves and our society.
To those who have suffered the immeasurable grief and
pain of losing a loved one to violence: we seek a change
that will address the root causes of such devastation. We
gently offer this work as an alternative to those who pursue
a perpetual condemnation that all too often stands in the
way of healing. Community, justice, and healing require us to
give all of ourselves and aspire to be more – individually and
collectively – than we have yet become. We are committed
to walking this path with you.
To those who have experienced both sides of this painful
dynamic, those who have harmed and been harmed, who
have persevered and won a hard-earned wisdom, and who
believe in second-chances and redemption more than ever:
may your example light the way ahead.

To the more than 5,300 people serving life-without-parole sentences in Pennsylvania, condemned to
“death-by-incarceration”, who survive a daily assault upon
your humanity: you are not forgotten. Whether you have
committed yourself to building the movement for justice and
liberation or are still finding your way there, accept this report
as a humble offering – building off the work of lifers and their
families – to help in a collective endeavor to do nothing less
than totally transform ourselves and our society.
To those who have suffered the immeasurable grief and
pain of losing a loved one to violence: we seek a change
that will address the root causes of such devastation. We
gently offer this work as an alternative to those who pursue
a perpetual condemnation that all too often stands in the
way of healing. Community, justice, and healing require us to
give all of ourselves and aspire to be more – individually and
collectively – than we have yet become. We are committed
to walking this path with you.
To those who have experienced both sides of this painful
dynamic, those who have harmed and been harmed, who
have persevered and won a hard-earned wisdom, and who
believe in second-chances and redemption more than ever:
may your example light the way ahead.

Executuve Summary

P. 15

Death-by-incarceration sentences are perhaps the most
distinctive and emblematic feature of the United States’
system of mass incarceration, with Pennsylvania staking a
claim as a national leader in the practice of condemning
people to die in prison and exhibiting its most pernicious
features. Philadelphia is the DBI capital of the world.
Pennsylvania itself is an international and national leader in
DBI sentencing. The racial disparities in DBI sentencing in
the state are stark evidence of systemic discrimination. DBI
sentences are overwhelmingly imposed on teenagers and
young adults, but increasingly are being served by aging
and elderly prisoners still being punished for acts committed
decades ago. The legal framework is unforgiving, allowing
for no mitigation, no lesser sentence, and no hope of release
short of commutation, which has become increasingly rare
just as it has become increasingly necessary to address the
extraordinary number of rehabilitated people serving a DBI
sentence. The inadequate policy justifications for this state of
affairs renders this a punishment lacking in legitimacy, one
that we need to bring to an end
. (Bold text added).

The Case for Parole Eligibility
P. 19

Closing off parole eligibility for the entirety of a person’s
natural life is a failed policy
predicated upon the
fallacy that the trajectory of a person’s life – including their
capacity for rehabilitation, transformation, and redemption
– can be accurately predicted at the time of sentencing. (Bold text added).

New Data: Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Lead the Nation and World in Life Without Parole Sentences

By the Abolitionist Law Center

Pittsburgh, PA) Philadelphia County has 2,694 people serving life without parole sentences (LWOP), which is more than any other county in the United States and far more than any other country in the world, according to a new data analysis released today by the Abolitionist Law Center.  A Way Out: Abolishing Death By Incarceration in Pennsylvania [Full Report] [Abridged Report] found Pennsylvania has 5,346 people serving LWOP, making the state a national leader in the use of the punishment; only Florida, with twice the population, has more people serving LWOP. State Representative Jason Dawkins and State Senator Sharif Street have filed legislation that would allow parole eligibility for all lifers after 15 years of incarceration.

The report refers to life without parole as “Death by Incarceration” (DBI). Key findings include:

  • Most of the people serving DBI were convicted and sentenced when they were 25 or younger, a period of life when brain development and maturation remains ongoing, according to recent neuroscientific research.
  • More than 70 percent of those serving DBI are over 40 and nearly half (2,377 people) are over 50. The practice continues even though research shows that criminal activity drops significantly after age 40 and despite the fact that locking up a person over 55 is two to three times more expensive.
  •  Black Pennsylvanians are serving DBI at a rate more than 18 times higher than that of their white counterparts. Out of Philadelphia’s 2,694 people serving DBI, 84 percent are Black. In Allegheny County, 13 percent of the county’s residents are Black, but constitute 76 percent of those serving DBI sentences (409 out of 541 people). (Bold text original).

This report presents a definitive portrait of a punishment that is archaic, cruel, unjustified, and indefensible,” said Bret Grote, Legal Director of the Abolitionist Law Center and co-author of the report. (Bold text added). “Death by incarceration sentences do not keep the public safer. The human and economic costs are staggering and growing by the year, as thousands of aging, rehabilitated men and women are locked away needlessly. Fortunately, there is also a rapidly growing movement determined to make parole eligibility for all lifers a reality.” (Bold text added).

In all cases involving defendants 18 years of age or older, Pennsylvania law does not allow for individualized consideration of a defendant’s circumstances; instead it mandates automatic DBI sentences to many who never actually killed or intended to kill anyone. As the report states, DBI is “a failed policy predicated upon the fallacy that the trajectory of a person’s life – including their capacity for rehabilitation, transformation, and redemption – can be accurately predicted at the time of sentencing.”

Avis Lee is an example of a person serving a DBI sentence because none of the particulars of her case were taken into consideration at sentencing – and may have made a difference. Ms. Lee has served 38 years of a DBI sentence due to a robbery committed by her brother that tragically went wrong and someone lost his life. Ms. Lee was only 18 years old and had been told by her brother to serve as a look out during a robbery. Ms. Lee had turned to drugs and alcohol after a childhood riddled with sexual abuse, violence, poverty, and the death of her mother. After the shooting, she flagged down a bus and told the driver a man was injured. For more than 25 years, she has had no disciplinary infractions in prison. Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Superior Court agreed to hear her claim that her mandatory life sentence was disproportionate because of her youth. There is hope for Ms. Lee, though not many others.

The Philadelphia DA’s Office is considering reviewing certain cases of excessive sentences, including mandatory life without parole sentences, and will pursue a lesser sentence when legally viable. The trend toward electing reform-oriented, less punitive district attorneys across the country could lead to similar efforts at sentence review being implemented in DA offices on a national scale.


Gov. Newsom’s executive order halts death penalty. Now let’s drop LWOP!

by Amber Rose Howard

On March 13, 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his decision to halt the execution of 737 people sentenced to death in California prisons. This moratorium on capital punishment acknowledges the significant racial, economic, gender and disability disparities in death penalty sentencing and is an important step toward justice.

California has the highest prison population in the country and has sentenced the greatest number of people to death row. Now, 737 have been granted life. It would be equally as ineffective and immoral to add that number of people to the 5,200 others who are currently serving Life Without the Possibility of Parole. Let us not sentence 737 more people to “the other death penalty.”

Our hope is that Gov. Newsom will extend the equity and justice informed lens that brought him to stop the death penalty as he moves forward examining other forms of extreme sentencing in California, including Life Without the Possibility of Parole.

Life Without Parole sentencing is increasingly being challenged and limited across the United States. Many states, including California, have passed legislation banning Life Without Parole sentences for youth.

Now it is time to move forward and eliminate this inhumane punishment for all people. LWOP sentences deny that every person has the capacity to change, grow and be rehabilitated. (Bold text added).

While commuting a sentence does not guarantee release from prison, it does guarantee that each person will have the right to see the Parole Board in their lifetime, rather than being sentenced to a “living death,” an existence without hope. Life Without the Possibility of Parole is not a smart, safe, equitable or just alternative to the death penalty. (Bold text added).

People of color are disproportionately sentenced to LWOP, revealing prosecutorial bias and racial discrimination. Of the nearly 200 people serving LWOP in California women’s prisons, the overwhelming majority are survivors of abuse, including intimate partner battering, childhood abuse, sexual violence and sex trafficking. Additionally, the majority are first-time “offenders” and had no record prior to being sentenced to Life Without Parole.

CURB has joined the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) in a statewide campaign called Drop LWOP, focused on ending Life Without Parole sentencing in California. (Bold text added). We are joined in the Drop LWOP campaign by people who have had their LWOP sentence commuted, other formerly incarcerated people, family members of currently incarcerated people and other justice advocates who are ready to move further away from cruel and unusual punishment and closer to a public safety model that is moral and effective.

Life Without the Possibility of Parole has trapped thousands of people in a living death sentence. To truly abolish the death penalty, we advocate for the commutation of all 5,200-plus LWOP sentences into parole-eligible terms and for the removal of LWOP from the California penal code. (Bold text added).

A prison sentence of life without parole isn’t called the death penalty. But it should be.

By Peter Irons, author of “A People’s History of the Supreme Court”

Before we cheer the huge drop in capital punishment cases, we need to revisit and replace the extended death penalty — life without parole.
Advocates of criminal justice reform (just about everybody these days) are understandably pleased that the ultimate penalty of death is dying out, so to speak, with Colorado this year joining the list of states that have abolished the death penalty. The number of executions has dropped from a modern high of 98 in 1999 to only 22 in 2019, with the number of death sentences imposed down by almost 90 percent during those years, from 272 to 34.

Before we cheer this welcome development, however, we need to revisit and replace what I call “the extended death penalty,” known officially as life without parole, or LWOP. (Bold text added). Embraced by many abolitionists as a more humane alternative to the death penalty, it is now supported by a majority of the public over execution; a Gallup poll in October showed 60 percent chose LWOP as the punishment for murder.

A better argument, in my opinion, is that restoring parole eligibility to all convicted murderers (with no guarantee of release, of course) would encourage inmates to keep their disciplinary records clean and to participate in educational and vocational programs to improve their chances of successful re-entry into their communities and job markets. (Bold text added).  Cynics say that LWOP inmates deserve a lifetime behind bars for taking another person’s life. And regardless of the issue of justice, some are obviously incorrigible and would be a danger on the streets. No one advocates the release of serial killers and other “worst of the worst” offenders. And parole boards and governors will certainly err on the side of continued imprisonment in the most serious cases, if for no other reason that no official wants to be pilloried for releasing a murderer who murders again.

My personal preference would be to revise state laws to give all convicted murderers a chance for parole after serving a minimum of 10 or 15 years (those who get life sentences with the possibility of parole serve an average of 13.4 years), and a presumption of parole after age 55 or 60, by which time most inmates have “aged out” of further crime. (Bold text added). But I understand both are unlikely of adoption in all but the bluest states, so I suggest instead urging governors to exercise their pardon and commutation powers in cases of demonstrated rehabilitation and remorse.

Against Life Without Parole

Forthcoming in Washington University Jurisprudence Review Judith Lichtenberg

Over 40,000 people in the United States today are serving life without parole sentences (LWOP) — more than triple the number in 1992. This figure understates the case, since parole has become increasingly rare for the 140,000 prisoners serving life sentences that ostensibly permit parole. I argue that LWOP sentences should be abolished.

After reviewing the facts about LWOP, I show that of the standard reasons for punishment only retributivism can hope to justify it. I investigate the varieties of retributivism and argue that plausible versions do not entail or even recommend it. So, we can reject LWOP without abandoning retributivism — an important point, strategically and perhaps morally as well. (Bold text added). I then make the positive case for abolition, on three main grounds. (Bold text added). First, few (if any) people are fully culpable for their criminal acts; we should mitigate their punishment accordingly. Second, abolishing life without parole — and indeed all life sentences — is likely to bring many benefits: to prisoners, their loved ones, the community in general, and to those who decide for abolition and who carry it out. (Bold text added). Among these is the promotion of certain attitudes it is good for people to have, including faith in humanity. Finally, there’s a certain pointlessness in continuing to punish a person who has undergone changes of character that distance them greatly from the person who committed the crime many decades earlier.

The case for capping all prison sentences at 20 years

America’s prison sentences are far too long. It’s time to do something about it. By German Lopez

It’s time for a radical idea that could really begin to reverse mass incarceration: capping all prison sentences at no more than 20 years. (Bold text added). It may sound like an extreme, even dangerous, proposal, but there’s good reason to believe it would help reduce the prison population without making America any less safe.

There’s also good reason to believe that 20 years is a good cutoff for a maximum. Studies have found that people almost always age out of crime, particularly by their late 30s and 40s. If a person is locked up for a robbery or murder at 21, there’s a very good chance that he won’t commit that same crime when he gets out at 41.

Other countries show this can work. European nations tend to have shorter prison sentences than the US, and certainly fewer people in prison, along with roughly equal or lower violent crime rates. Norway in particular caps the great majority of prison sentences at 21 years — and its violent crime and reoffending rates are lower than the US’s. (The cap does have some exceptions, as I’ll explain later.)

A cap on prison sentences wouldn’t on its own end mass incarceration. But at least tens of thousands of people in prison would benefit now — if the change were applied retroactively — and untold numbers more would benefit in the future if it were adopted by states and the federal government.

This would lower sentences for violent offenses. That’s good.

In the US, for a 20-year cap to really have an impact, the policy would have to be adopted by the states. Some 87 percent of prisoners in the US are held in state facilities. The change could also be enacted at the federal level, of course, and the feds could try to encourage states to implement such a change with financial incentives (although similar efforts in the past haven’t been very successful).

But the majority of those in state prisons are people convicted of violent offenses: In 2015, 54.5 percent of people in state prisons were in for violent crimes. About 15.2 percent were in for drugs.

Until now, much of the criminal justice reform movement has focused on reducing prison sentences for low-level, nonviolent offenders. A 20-year sentencing cap, however, would almost entirely benefit higher-level, violent offenders — which would be a good thing. (Bold text added).

These violent offenders are not all, or even close to mostly, serial killers. They can be people who committed armed robberies but didn’t seriously hurt anyone. They can be accomplices of such crimes who never directly hurt anyone at all, such as the getaway driver in a robbery. They can be women who killed their abusers. They can be people who got into fights with friends or family under the influence of alcohol and other drugs but otherwise may not be likely to commit any violent crimes at all.

And violent offenders, overall, make up the majority of the state prison population.

This is why criminal justice activists and scholars, including Pfaff in Locked Inargue that America will have to at some point confront how it treats violent offenders if it really wants to undo mass incarceration.

As it stands, America’s incarceration rate is 655 per 100,000, which is higher than that of authoritarian nations like Cuba (510), Russia (389), and China (118). Democratic, developed nations tend to have even lower incarceration rates than the US; Canada’s is 114, Germany’s is 76, and Japan’s is 41.

When it comes to life imprisonment in particular, Mauer and Nellis’s book pointed to research that suggested the US accounts for 40 percent of the world’s total life sentences.

Because the US has higher lethal crime rates (largely due to easy access to guns) than other developed nations, there’s a good chance that the US will never have incarceration rates as low as other wealthy nations. Still, if the US wants to get back to its own historical trends — like in 1980, when the number of people in prison was around a fifth of what it is now — it has a lot of room for improvement. But to get that low, at least some violent offenders will have to be let out of prison sooner rather than later.

Cory Booker’s latest criminal justice reform bill takes aim at life imprisonment

The proposal would let older inmates get an early release from federal prison.By German Lopez

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who’s running for president, unveiled a new, aggressive criminal justice reform proposal over the weekend that would make it easier for people, particularly those older than 50, to get an early release from federal prison.

The Matthew Charles and William Underwood Second Look Act, first reported by Leigh Ann Caldwell for NBC News, would let people who have served more than 10 years in prison petition a court for early release. Inmates 50 or older would get the presumption of release if they petitioned — so judges would need to show that the inmate is an actual threat to society to keep them incarcerated.

The bill is named after William Underwood, a 65-year-old federal prison inmate currently serving life for drug-related charges, and Matthew Charles, the first person released from federal prison under the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill Booker supported and signed into law by President Donald Trump. Charles called for a proposal similar to Booker’s in a Washington Post op-ed.

The proposal is part of a long history of supporting criminal justice reform for Booker. He recently unveiled a clemency reform plan that would, without Congress, provide an early release as many as tens of thousands of federal inmates. Booker has also been one of the most outspoken US senators for legalizing marijuana and scaling back mass incarceration.

But Booker’s new proposal is one of the most aggressive yet, taking direct aim at life imprisonment and mandatory minimum sentences imposing decades in prison. It also wouldn’t include an exclusion for violent crimes, potentially giving a path to early release for people serving time for violent offenses. (Booker’s staff told NBC News it would be harder for those convicted of violent crimes to get a reprieve since it would be easier for a judge to demonstrate that they are a threat to society.)

Those same qualities would, however, likely make it very hard to pass through Congress, which struggled for years to pass criminal justice reforms even for low-level, nonviolent offenses, and only passed the First Step Act as a compromise after years of debate and negotiation.

Still, there’s a good argument for Booker’s bill — and against life sentences more broadly: the age-crime curve. (Bold text added). Based on studies and other empirical evidence, people generally age out of crime. This basic fact makes it very unlikely that someone who gets out of prison at 50 or older, even those previously guilty of violent crimes, will reoffend.

In an era in which progressives are taking aim at what they call a racist war on drugs and other policies that have made the US the world’s leader in incarceration, plans like Booker could help make a serious dent. And the underlying concept for it is grounded in decades of evidence.

Why life sentences are unnecessary: People age out of crime

The age-crime curve shows that people tend to age out of crime. In their mid- to late teens and early 20s, people are much, much likelier to commit a crime than they are in their 30s and especially 40s and on.

Here’s the age-crime curve for robbery in 2014, taken from The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences by criminal justice reform advocates Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis

The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences

Marc Mauer (Author), Ashley Nellis (Author), Kerry Myers (Contributor)

In this book, Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis of The Sentencing Project argue that no sentence should be longer than longer than twenty years.

FORUM 1: Abolish death penalty and life without parole

By Ashley Nellis Dec 28, 2019

THE American criminal justice system has been getting some much-needed renovations: People with nonviolent and low-level convictions are not receiving harsh sentences, prison populations are declining in many states, and policymakers are open to new approaches to addressing crime.

At the deep end of the system, we also see reforms: efforts to eliminate the death penalty are gaining ground and public support for it is at its lowest point in 40 years.

For the first time in Gallup’s polling history, a majority (60 percent) of Americans say that life imprisonment with no possibility of parole is a better punishment for murder than the death penalty. Ten of the current Democratic presidential candidates publicly support abolishing the death penalty.

The declining support for the death penalty is indeed a victory for successful abolition campaigns that bring together unlikely allies.

Exonerations based on new evidence, exorbitant costs and the drawn-out appeals process means far fewer people are being sentenced to death than in the past. Executions have become increasingly uncommon. Death row currently comprises 2,500 people, reflecting a steady decline for nearly 20 years. Maintenance of the death penalty has become difficult to justify as concerns about efficacy, deterrence value and morality converge.

But the presence or absence of the death penalty should not be our sole barometer for a proportionate sentencing regime. The sentence of life without parole—touted as “the humane alternative” to death—is highly problematic for many of these same reasons.

The well-documented deficiencies of the death penalty process should raise serious concerns about sentences of life imprisonment that receive substandard critical review. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor recently expressed her uneasiness with life sentences without parole, writing, “A statute that shields itself from judicial scrutiny of sentences of life without the possibility of parole raises serious constitutional concerns.”

Capital punishment is routinely set apart from all other sentences in terms of the judiciary’s willingness to regulate it, based on the notion that “death is different.” This has led to a separate, heightened system of review of death-eligible cases.

Take, for example, the fact that attorneys in death penalty cases often receive specialized litigation training. And while procedural errors and substandard representation still occur with these protections in place, there is an established protocol for review when such claims are made.

But the heightened standard of review does not take place with life imprisonment, creating an increased likelihood that innocent individuals will be convicted. In the absence of a rigorous review process, one cannot know precisely how widespread the errors in life imprisonment cases are.

Capital defendants sentenced to death also have a right to state-appointed counsel for appellate reviews, but those sentenced to life imprisonment do not. In addition, appeals are time-barred in all but death penalty cases. Even with stringent regulations around the death penalty, errors are rampant.

Just imagine the scale of errors among the 53,000 people serving their life sentence—21 times the number on death row.

The logical inference from the U.S. Supreme Court’s categorical finding that “death is different” is that all other sentences are not different and can thus be held to a different (lower) level of scrutiny.

(The sole instance where this categorical ban has been reconsidered comes from recent rulings disqualifying most juveniles from receiving life without parole on the basis of the categorical ban that “children are different.”)

In public polling on the death penalty, the only alternative punishment offered is life imprisonment with no chance for release. But why must we limit punishment for our most serious crimes to only these two terminal sentences which are, in the end, the same: both result in an individual dying in prison at the hand of the state?(Bold text added).

There are many other sentencing options that could be made available. Those that afford regular review and a meaningful opportunity for parole are ideal. Sanctions can accommodate a legitimate desire to punish, but allow for the chance for evaluation at regular intervals.

Though it seems counterintuitive, the science on offending tells us that in most cases, even individuals who commit serious crimes grow beyond their poor judgment and learn to abide by the law.

The United States should follow the lead of other Western democracies in abolishing both the death penalty and life without parole.

Ashley Nellis is senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project. She wrote this for

Your View: Why Pennsylvania should abolish life without parole


When Trina Garnett was 14 years old when she killed two people in Chester, Pa. Garnett had been abused and neglected for most of her life, suffered a serious intellectual disability and was homeless at the time of her offense.

Despite these challenges, the girl was tried in adult court for the murders and sentenced to life without parole. She remains in prison today, 40 years later.

Pennsylvania has the third-largest number of people serving life-without-parole sentences in the U.S., after Florida and Louisiana. The state is leading a nationwide trend of ever-lengthening prison terms.

In Pennsylvania, one in six prisoners is serving a life sentence, the vast majority of whom have no chance at a parole review. There are nearly the same number of people serving life sentences in Pennsylvania today as the entire state prison population back in 1980.

This growth poses a major obstacle to ending mass incarceration, and is counterproductive to public safety.

In a new book on life imprisonment in the United States, authored by Marc Mauer and myself, we document that life sentences accelerated rapidly amid a harsh political environment looking to assuage public fears about victimization. The punitive policy approach lacked research showing effectiveness over less punitive sentences.

Philadelphia is the home for most people serving life sentences in the state. In the late 1980s and early 1990s it experienced a sharp, temporary, rise in violence as a result of the crack epidemic. Residents’ worries about crime were not unfounded, but the solutions adopted were far from evidence-based.

As the “tough on crime” movement advanced in the 1980s and beyond much of its focus was to extend the length of prison terms through policies such as mandatory sentencing, “three strikes and you’re out,” abolishment of parole, and trying juveniles in the adult system. Since most of the people sentenced under such provisions had committed violent crimes there was little pushback.

Pennsylvania maintains such a high proportion of life-sentenced prisoners for two reasons: first the state abolished its parole system for all people serving life sentences. Second, people convicted of first degree or second degree murder receive a mandatory life sentence.

Moreover, the state’s placement of teens as young as 14 in the adult criminal court compounds these numbers to produce the nation’s-and the world’s-largest population of lifers who were juveniles at the time of their offense.

The diminishing impact of long sentences on public safety is largely a function of two dynamics. First, criminologists have long known that people “age out” of crime. Involvement in criminal behavior rises sharply in the late teen years among those who are at-risk, but declines significantly by the mid- to late-twenties for most.

Thus, imposing a decades-long prison term on a 22-year old means that we will be spending enormous sums of money to prevent a declining proportion of crime over time.

Second, public safety resources are finite. The $66,000 or so that is spent annually incarcerating a person in their 50s or 60s is money not available to work with the 14- and 15-year olds who are beginning to engage in risky behaviors. It would be far more effective to invest in strengthening the capacity of families, schools, and communities to foster resilience and opportunities for young people that would avoid future incarceration.

This reorientation will involve a series of shifts in sentencing policy, including: repealing felony murder statutes that penalize a “getaway driver” as harshly as the “triggerman” in a homicide; bringing back the system of parole for lifers; and, ending the “one size fits all” structure of mandatory sentencing by restoring discretion to sentencing judges in order to impose individualized sentences by person and offense.

Pennsylvania is now poised for meaningful reform as prominent elected officials have offered bold proposals to reorient the state’s sentencing policy.

Reevaluation of prosecutorial practices in Philadelphia, led by the election of Larry Krasner in 2018, could place the city as a national leader in criminal justice reform. In the legislature, one proposed reform would reinstate parole for lifers.

While there is no single action that will end mass incarceration, a stepped-up focus on excessive sentences is critical to making that goal a reality.

Eight Keys to Mercy:

How to shorten excessive prison sentences

By Jorge Renaud Prison Policy Initiative senior analyst.

Our 8 strategies

The eight suggested reforms in this report can shorten time served in different ways:

  • Several ways to make people eligible for release on parole sooner.
  • One way to make it more likely that the parole board will approve conditional release on parole.
  • Several ways to shorten the time that must be served, regardless of sentencing and parole decisions.
  • One simple way to ensure that people are not returned to prison.

Of course, states vary in many ways, most critically in how they structure parole eligibility (see sidebar above), and policymakers reading this report should anticipate tailoring our suggested reforms to their state systems. Each of the reforms laid out in this report could be effective independent of the others. However, we encourage states to use as many of the following tools as possible to shorten excessive sentences:

  1. Presumptive parole 
  2. Second-look sentencing 
  3. Granting of good time 
  4. Universal parole eligibility after 15 years 
  5. Retroactive application of sentence reduction reforms
  6. Elimination of parole revocations for technical violations 
  7. Compassionate release 
  8. Commutation 

Universal parole eligibility after 15 years

While many states will retain the option of imposing long sentences, their sentencing structures should presume that both individuals and society transform over time. This proposal uses the same 15-year timeline as proposed by the Model Penal Code for Second Look Sentencing discussed above.

States will vary in how they structure sentences and how parole eligibility is calculated, but states should ensure that people are not serving more than 15 years without being considered for parole. (Bold text added).

Grading the parole release systems of all 50 states

Report by Jorge Renaud Prison Policy Initiative senior analyst.

From arrest to sentencing, the process of sending someone to prison in America is full of rules and standards meant to guarantee fairness and predictability. An incredible amount of attention is given to the process, and rightly so. But in sharp contrast, the processes for releasing people from prison are relatively ignored by the public and by the law. State paroling systems vary so much that it is almost impossible to compare them.

Parole systems should give every incarcerated person ample opportunity to earn release and have a fair, transparent process for deciding whether to grant it. (Bold text added). A growing number of organizations and academics have called for states to adopt policies that would ensure consistency and fairness in how they identify who should receive parole, when those individuals should be reviewed and released, and what parole conditions should be attached to those individuals. In this report, I take the best of those suggestions, assign them point values, and grade the parole systems of each state.

How we graded and what distinguishes a fair and equitable parole system.

To assess the fairness and equity of each state’s parole system, we looked at five general factors:

  1. Whether a state’s legislature allows the parole board to offer discretionary parole to most people sentenced today; (20 pts.) 
  2. The opportunity for the person seeking parole to meet face-to-face with the board members and other factors about witnesses and testimony; (30 pts.) 
  3. The principles by which the parole board makes its decisions; (30 pts.) 
  4. The degree to which staff help every incarcerated person prepare for their parole hearing; (20 pts.) 
  5. The degree to which the parole board is transparent in the way it incorporates evidence-based tools. (20 pts.) 

Parole principles: Who is eligible for parole and are they treated fairly? (30 pts.)

Certain principles should be present in a fair parole system. Do all incarcerated individuals have a chance to earn parole? (Bold text added). Do they understand what is expected of them? If they fulfill all the criteria expected of them, does the parole board grant parole or deny parole for other, more subjective reasons? And if the board denies parole, how often are individuals reviewed again? I graded states on the extent to which their parole systems reflect those principles.

  • Every individual in prison should be eligible for parole. (12 pts.) (Bold text original). In 16 states the pool of individuals eligible for parole is rapidly diminishing because state legislatures have stripped their parole boards of the power to grant release but to a dwindling number of individuals sentenced decades ago. Many other states have Truth in Sentencing statutes in place, which means individuals are not eligible for parole until they have almost completed their sentences. And at least six states have almost a quarter of their incarcerated population serving life without parole, or sentences so long that they amount to virtual life.
  • Each state should have presumptive parole. (9 pts.) (Bold text original). This policy gives every incarcerated person a list of specific things they must do to make parole, all but guaranteeing their release at a predetermined date if they fulfill the state’s requirements. This would inject fairness into the system and allow incarcerated persons and their families to better prepare for release.

Fighting to End the Other Death Sentence: Life Without Parole

BY Jean TrounstineTruthoutPUBLISHEDSeptember 16, 2018

When incarcerated people in 17 states initiated a 19-day prison strike last month, one of their 10 demands was that all “imprisoned humans have [the] possibility of rehabilitation and parole.” This includes the opportunity for early release, allowing prisoners both to exit before the end of their sentence and to serve their remaining time in the community.

It also means an end to the harsh sentencing practice known as life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). (Bold text added).In an August 26 interview with MSNBC, formerly incarcerated activist Darren Mack described LWOP as “death by incarceration,” explaining, “You will not leave prison until you die.”

Sentenced to Death by Incarceration in New York State Prison

The conversation around criminal justice reform is finally moving from general talk about mass incarceration to the specific reality of the multitude of people serving massive sentences. The more accurate description of these sentences – death by incarceration – is replacing antiseptic phrases like “life without parole.” These long-term sentences are, in truth, sentences to death in prison. (Bold text added).

Several years ago, the Defenders Clinic at CUNY Law School began working with people serving death in prison sentences on their only path to freedom: gubernatorial clemency. While we have worked with only a small fraction of the nearly 9,000 people serving life sentences in New York, it is enough to reveal the criminal legal system’s obsession with processing, convicting, and punishing.    

Virtually everyone we have worked with was convicted after a trial, the case for most people serving life sentences in New York. This raises two questions: why weren’t those cases resolved through plea negotiations like virtually all other criminal cases, and what was the justification for meting out massive sentences on people who exercised their constitutional right to trial?

In several cases, we heard from clients that the defense lawyer never mentioned any plea offer. In many others, we heard about plea offers being superficially conveyed but virtually no time spent having the difficult yet crucial discussion of the pros and cons of a plea versus a trial. We repeatedly heard about a complete lack of advice from the attorney about the wisdom of accepting or rejecting a plea offer.

It became clear from conversations with lifers that many of their assigned lawyers had been eager to take cases to trial and forgo the serious consideration of a plea, especially since most were being paid an hourly rate by the court and had a financial incentive to take a case to trial regardless of the risks to their clients.     

Almost all the people we worked with were represented by a lawyer assigned by the court. They had no say in who their lawyer was and had no realistic way of replacing that lawyer (and many tried). Over and over we heard the same thing: ‘my lawyer did not come to the jail to meet with me a single time while my charges were pending.’

We also learned that the failures of many of these attorneys did not end with the lack of client counseling. Considering the enormous sentences handed down after trial, perhaps the lawyers’ greatest deficiency was at the sentencing proceeding itself. In most cases, there was no pre-sentence memorandum supporting an argument for a lesser sentence and no mitigation advocacy of any kind.

In several cases, sentencing advocacy consisted of a few generic sentences from counsel asking the court to be lenient. In one case, there were serious pretrial issues regarding the accused’s mental capacity, but at sentencing the defense counsel said nothing about his client’s documented history of mental illness.    

It would be a grievous mistake to blame defense counsel for all the ills that define the criminal legal system. After trial, prosecutors routinely asked judges to impose the maximum sentence and judges were glad to oblige, often tacking on consecutive sentences to ensure that the person would die in prison — and to send a loud message to anyone else who had the temerity to insist on the right to a trial.

One man was offered a plea of three to nine years, went to trial, and is currently serving 25 to life. Another was offered 25 to life pre-trial yet sentenced after trial to 125 to life. Some argue that plea offers are a discount and a necessary ingredient of the adjudication of criminal cases in an imperfect system. However, such disparate outcomes – 25 to life if you plead, 125 to life after trial – cannot be justified. 

As we spent more time with those serving life sentences, we saw the impact of a merciless and punitive system in countless ways.  

Many lifers are from rapidly gentrifying parts of New York City. Most were sentenced in the 1980s. They are black and Latinx. A majority are from places like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, and the Lower East Side. Their families were long ago priced out of the neighborhood as long-neglected zip codes have changed so drastically that the lifers would barely recognize where they grew up.  

In New York, there are 613 lifers who were 17 and under at the time of their charges. There are thousands more convicted when they were 18, 19 or in their early twenties. Many are now in their forties and fifties having served decades in prison for crimes committed in their youth when labels like “super-predator” fed into racist narratives and massive sentences.  

Yet neuroscience now informs us that brain development continues into our mid-twenties. Even the Supreme Court now recognizes that youth have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, are less culpable than adults, and have a greater capacity for rehabilitation. A growing number of states have passed laws that give young offenders an opportunity to seek parole or a sentence reduction after having served a proscribed number of years in prison. There is no similar movement afoot in New York to correct those morally indefensible, and arguably illegal, sentences.

There is a rapidly growing aging population in New York prisons. These people have long since aged out of any real possibility of future criminal behavior. Many are dying. New York has a mechanism in place for compassionate release for those with terminal illness but from 2013-2017 only 72 people were granted medical release.  

Many law students came to this work inspired by Innocence Projects across the country. We have worked with several people with undeniable innocence claims that have fallen on deaf prosecutorial and judicial ears. But while the students wanted to join the battle for justice for the wrongly convicted, they soon discovered a much larger area of unjust convictions – the many lifers who, even if not factually innocent, were denied any semblance of due process.  

One man’s lawyer, unbeknownst to him, had a pending lawsuit against New York City based on an incident where a client less than a year earlier slashed him with a razor during a visit in the holding cells. As part of that lawsuit, the lawyer testified that he was seeing a psychiatrist and had trouble relating to clients.  

Another man’s lawyer, unbeknownst to him, was under investigation by the very same District Attorney’s office prosecuting him. The lawyer was indicted soon after the verdict (and ended up in state prison), and a new lawyer appeared at sentencing.

In another case, the defense claimed that a prosecution witness had been coerced into testifying falsely by the prosecutor. That prosecutor thereafter became a defense attorney and is now in federal prison for suborning perjury.

Another man is serving a life sentence based on a case where the lead detective turned out to be a serial murderer for the mob. The police file in the case is nowhere to be found. 

In each of these cases, all appeals were fought by the prosecution and denied by the court.

Since we were working with people serving life sentences, many students assumed that these were people convicted of murder; people who had taken a human life. However, many of the lifers we’ve worked with were convicted of felony murder, a rule that allows a person to be charged with murder even if the death is at the hands of someone else. Several people did not kill anyone, fire any shots, possess a weapon, or have any intention, or even expectation, that anyone would be killed. Still, because they participated in an underlying robbery, they were convicted of felony murder and given a life sentence. Several of these men were teenagers at the time they were arrested. There is a growing movement for states to reconsider the felony murder rule, but New York is missing in action.

We have worked with only a small number of the people serving life sentences in New York, and an even smaller percentage of the 47,000 people in state prison. Nevertheless, we have found ample reason to fear that the impact of long overdue criminal justice reforms, trumpeted daily and endorsed by countless politicians, may be far less than hoped until the extant incarceratory system within which those changes operate is dismantled or radically overhauled.

Meanwhile, it is time to demand clemency for the countless number of people who merit that relief, and to create second-look mechanisms that require immediate review of the massive sentences that fed mass incarceration. 

The state Legislature’s criminal justice reform failures


Even as the media describes the 2019 New York legislative session as historically progressive and transformative, and Democrats in the Legislature proclaim resounding success in advancing a liberal agenda, especially on criminal justice reform, it is impossible to ignore a cruel and cowardly omission: the absence of any laws aimed at restoring a measure of dignity, decency and hope to the most vulnerable and ignored among us, the 50,000 people in New York State’s prisons.

Dostoyevsky is credited with observing that the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. How a society inflicts punishment on people convicted of crime reveals much about its character. The punitive sentences meted out in New York courts for the past several decades have resulted in more than 9,000 people serving life terms. Those sentences are thereafter enforced in merciless ways as people are repeatedly denied parole despite vast evidence of transformation and redemption. Harsh parole practices are one of the primary drivers of the current crisis of mass incarceration, and there were draft bills aimed to redress these stains on human decency.

Yet none of the bills changing any of this even made it to a vote.

One bill addressed solitary confinement, a practice described and condemned by the United Nations as torture. The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act (HALT) would, among other things, limit the amount of time a person could be placed in solitary confinement to 15 days. The bill was ardently supported by survivors of solitary, their families and advocates to such a degree that it led to a hunger strike. The bill never made it to the floor for a vote despite having ample support for its passage in the Assembly and the Senate.

Another bill addressed the state’s aging prison population. It is aimed at people like Stanley Bellamy and Ulysses Boyd. Bellamy is 57. Boyd is 64. Both men have been in prison for more than 30 years. Bellamy will be eligible for parole in 2047 when he’d be 85. Boyd will be eligible for parole in 2035 when he’d be 80.

The Elder Parole bill forces people to finally think critically about how long someone should serve for an undeniably violent crime. Bellamy and Boyd are each serving time for murder. But after three decades in prison they have grown, matured and changed into remarkably different people than they were in 1987 when they entered state prison. They accept responsibility for their actions and acknowledge the pain and harm they caused. Their remorse is genuine as reflected in the ways they have become respected elders in prison counseling younger men, offering advice, and giving of themselves on behalf of others.

Under the legislation, anyone 55 or older who has served 15 years would be eligible for parole — not automatically released, just eligible to make his or her case to the Parole Board. The bill provides a measure of hope to hundreds of people that one day they might live outside the prison walls. (Bold text added).

According to a report from New York’s Department of Corrections, the average age of death for those who died of natural causes in prison was 57. Without this bill becoming law, Bellamy and Boyd and thousands like them will die in prison. The bill was voted out of the relevant legislative committees but ultimately stalled in the face of law enforcement and conservative opposition.

There’s more. The Fair and Timely Parole bill provides that the board shall release incarcerated persons who are eligible for parole unless they present a current and unreasonable risk of violating the law and such risk cannot be mitigated by parole supervision. This is an effort to transform parole decisions from a backward-looking approach that fixates on the crime of conviction, to a forward-looking analysis that asks who the person is presently. The bill unequivocally promotes parole decisions based on rehabilitation and is grounded in the values of redemption and transformation as opposed to retribution and eternal punishment. This bill also stalled in the Legislature.

Then there is the vital question of who should be appointed to the Parole Board. For the past year, the Board has been operating with 12 members even though it is statutorily authorized to have 19. With 10,000-12,000 parole interviews each year, it is impossible for 12 people to meaningfully consider each parole application.

A growing number of advocates and people impacted by the criminal legal system have been pleading with the governor to fill the board with people whose experience reveals that they believe in rehabilitation, and who come from professional backgrounds that allow them to thoroughly evaluate someone’s current risk to public safety and readiness for release. More specifically, advocates urge a board of 19 people from therapeutic and clinical backgrounds who come from or had deep personal ties to communities most impacted by violence and incarceration.

In the waning moments of the legislative session, the governor sent a list of six nominees to the Senate for confirmation. Half of these candidatescame from prosecutorial or law-enforcement backgrounds, and few had any professional experience in trauma-informed care or other therapeutic work. Senators, advocates, currently and formerly incarcerated people and their families had no opportunity to vet the candidates, speak with their references and determine their suitability for this powerful position. Ultimately, the Senate confirmed five of the nominees.

While there is much for progressives to applaud from this year’s legislative session, it cannot be cast as historically and inclusively transformative unless and until elected officials act on behalf of the thousands of people languishing in prison, their families and communities.

More information

Duke University

Duke study on NC life in prison sentences finds a ‘white lives matter effect’


Lifetime prison sentences should be re-examined after a study found racial disparities among those sentenced to North Carolina’s harshest punishment short of death, Duke University legal experts say.

Sentences of life in prison without parole, the study stated, “reflect not national or state, but chiefly local preferences as well as preferences for severe sentences in cases with white victims, rather than a consistent response to crimes rates.”

“That such severe sentences can flow from local preferences raises constitutional, state law, but also policy concerns,” it concluded.

The Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law released the study Tuesday. It analyzed data by county for North Carolina life without parole sentences — the automatic sentence for murder when the death penalty is ruled out — that reached record highs over the past 25 years even as homicide rates declined.

The study found “a white lives matter effect” in that the most life sentences occurred in counties with more black defendants and more white victims of murder, said Brandon Garrett, one of the authors of the study and and director of the Wilson Center, during a virtual news conference on the study.

Fewer life sentences tend to occur as the number of black homicide victims in a county increases, the study found.

This race-of-victim effect is consistent with research on death sentences, which have declined significantly over the years, Garrett said.

“The findings have implications for efforts to reconsider the most severe sentences in the U.S.,” the study concluded. “And they suggest that prosecutorial discretion in seeking long sentences will be an important subject for future research and policy.”

Garrett said he hopes the study informs the N.C. Task Force for Racial Equity, which is compiling a list of recommendations to address discriminatory criminal justice practices to present to Gov. Roy Cooper on Dec. 1.

The Duke study looked at 1,627 people serving life sentences imposed from 1995 to 2017.

Of those, 62% were Black, 30% were white and 8% were classified as other. About 76% of the state’s population are white and 13% are Black, according to U.S. Census population estimates.

Of those serving life sentences, 1,551 were convicted of first or second-degree murder. Sixty-four were convicted of violent habitual felonies, or people who had been convicted of two violent felonies.

“Life without parole is one of the most egregious forms of racial discrimination and inequality in our criminal justice system,” said Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat and former district judge, during the news conference.

The report and related data should be used to change laws and administrative procedures to bring back a sense “of true justice,” to the system, Morey said.


Before the 1970s, parole boards could release people sentenced to life in prison in most states, according to the study.

Life without parole emerged as an alternative to death sentences in the 1970s as legal challenges questioned the constitutionality of capital punishment.

In the 1990s, states moved to reject parole options and focus on retribution, leading to more life sentences, the study states.

In 1994, Congress mandated life without parole for people convicted of a federal offense if they had two prior offenses that resulted in state or federal convictions. Many states followed with life sentences for habitual offenders, the study states

Over the past 25 years, the number of people serving life sentences increased by 59% even as serious crimes, including murder, declined, the study states. More than 50,000 people are serving life sentences across the U.S.

Supporters of life sentences have said people who commit such crimes can’t be rehabilitated, but emerging science indicates that as people age they are less likely to commit crimes, the study states.


North Carolina adopted life without parole sentencing in 1994 when structured sentencing prescribed sentence ranges based on the crime, a defendant’s previous convictions and aggravating and mitigating factors.

The change sought to address a prison overcrowding crisis with a new model that would provide more consistency and help predict the system’s financial impact, according to a UNC School of Government blog post.

nder that system, adults convicted of murder would automatically be sentenced to life in prison or death.

At the same time, state laws broadened the definition of murder to include killings that occur during the attempted or commission of other crimes such as arson, robbery or other felonies that involved a weapon.

Prosecutors’ discretion allowed them to charge defendants with murder even if they weren’t directly responsible for a killing, experts said.


Clive Hurst was one of those sentenced to life in prison under the expanded definition of murder.

When Hurst was 19, he was involved in a plan to rob a drug dealer, and the dealers’s live-in partner was shot and killed by another man who was never caught, said Hurst’s attorney, Ben Finholt, director of the Just Sentencing Project at N.C. Prisoner Legal Services.

The prosecutor told the jury in Hurst’s 1996 murder trial that Hurst knew what was going to take place when his accomplice picked him up with a machine gun, The News & Observer reported.

But Hurst’s then attorney argued the state built its murder case on taped testimony from a woman who had been found dead in New York and couldn’t be cross-examined.

Finholt said the woman also testified in another Durham case in which a man’s conviction was overturned.

Hurst is now 45 years old, after spending 24 years in prison.

“I think people view this as, ‘You go away. You did something awful. We can never have you in society again,” Finholt said. “ I think that that’s the wrong way to look at it. I think there are many people who are serving this incredibly draconian sentence for actions they did not directly commit.”


The study also found that as homicides increase in a county, fewer people are sentenced to life. And life sentences are more likely to be imposed in rural counties.

It also found that prior use of life sentences in a county is an indicator of future sentencing patterns.

The pattern is created by prosecutors, amenable judges and jurors, and inadequate defense lawyers, according to the study.


Families slam Massachusetts bill that would abolish life without parole

Convicted first-degree murderers would be eligible for parole hearings after 25 years

BOSTON MA. – OCTOBER 8: Terry Titcomb, with her husband Albert, makes a passionate point as she testifies against a bill to reduce mass incarceration by releasing convicts before the Judiciary committee on October 8, 2019 in Boston, MA. Her son was murdered 25 years ago.(Staff Photo By Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

By RICK SOBEY | [email protected] | Boston HeraldPUBLISHED: October 8, 2019 at 6:38 p.m. | UPDATED: October 8, 2019 at 6:39 p.m.

Family members who lost loved ones to convicted first-degree murderers fired back Tuesday against a Massachusetts bill that would abolish life-without-parole sentences and potentially let killers return to the streets.

“What does my son get? What do we get as victims?” Terry Titcomb of Charlestown, whose son was murdered 25 years ago, told members of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary at the State House. “I don’t get to kiss my son. I go to the cemetery, and I look at his stone. My son doesn’t know I’m there.”

First-degree murderers would be retroactively eligible for parole hearings after 25 years under a bill introduced by state Rep. Jay Livingstone (D-Boston).

“I thought with the jury, with the court statement, it was over,” Titcomb said of the jury’s first-degree murder conviction decades ago. Her son, Albert, was shot in the back of the head by Shawn Fritz — who’s serving life for first-degree murder. Fritz killed Albert Titcomb over a $50 debt.

Terry Titcomb showed legislators a picture of her son with her then 1-year-old grandson, taken about six months before the murder. “That’s the only picture I will ever, ever have,” she said.

Family members of Thomas Harty, 95, and Joanna Fisher, 77, of Orange, also slammed the bill at Tuesday’s hearing. Joshua Hart and Brittany Smith broke into their Orange home and killed them, and are now behind bars serving two life sentences for first-degree murder with no chance of parole.

“I ask you to kill this bill,” said Kathleen Coonz, Fisher’s daughter. “Do not send it to the floor for a vote.”

Thomas’ son Don Harty said legislators must reject this bill and instead pass laws to keep their communities safe.

“Had the writer of this bill been more accurate, I think the bill would have read, ‘A bill to put murderers back on the street,’ ” he said.

Under Livingstone’s proposal, “An Act to Reduce Mass Incarceration,” the parole board would only release first-degree murderers they are satisfied are not at risk of reoffending. In Massachusetts, there are more than 1,000 prisoners serving life without parole, Livingstone said.

This bill would give those prisoners a chance to prove they would be a positive addition to society, he said. Supporters of the bill argue that inmates can reform after decades, and show they’re deserving of returning to society.

Livingstone has also cited the high costs for incarcerating older inmates, which he said is about three times the annual $75,000 price-tag of a younger inmate — or around $225,000 per year.

Another bill, by state Sen. William Brownsberger (D-Belmont), would make future first-degree murderers eligible for parole after 35 years.

Bill would eliminate life without parole sentences for convicted killers

Lawmakers KO bill that would make first-degree murderers parole eligible

The mother of a man murdered in 2004 formed a group last year to fight a bill that would make those convicted of first-degree murder eligible for parole after 25 years in prison.

ASHLAND – The mother of a man murdered in 2004 formed a group last year to fight a bill that would make those convicted of first-degree murder eligible for parole after 25 years in prison.

The bill was defeated last week in both houses of the Legislature, a victory for victims, Karren Fleet of Ashland said.

“It’s been a long painful journey but well worth the effort,” said Fleet. “I don’t feel ‘happy.’ Nothing about this subject is a good thing, but I am glad and proud. It did bring a lot of grieving families together to make this happen.”

Fleet’s son, David Fleet, 23, was shot and killed in his apartment on Whalen Lane in Natick on May 8, 2004. His killer, Dwayne Taylor, was convicted of first-degree murder by a Middlesex Superior Court jury in 2006 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the mandatory punishment for that crime.

David Fleet’s slaying occurred in the early morning hours. He had recently moved into his Natick apartment and was hosting a party. David Fleet did not know Taylor, who had been invited by someone else. Eventually Fleet and others kicked out Taylor and another person because they suspected Taylor was trying to steal.

About a half-hour later, Taylor returned and tried to get in through a sliding glass door. Party-goers held the door closed, but Taylor drew a handgun and fired through the door, striking Fleet in the chest. Fleet was taken to MetroWest Medical Center in Natick, where he was declared dead.

State Rep. Jay Livingstone, D-Boston, and state Sen. Joseph Boncore, D-Boston, proposed matching bills that would change the sentence to allow for parole after 25 years. The bill would have affected those already convicted of first-degree murder.

To help raise public knowledge of the bill and to gain support in defeating it, Fleet started the group “Opposition & Survivors Against Elimination of LWOP (life without parole) in MA.”

The group, in a Facebook post, thanked everyone who helped fight the bill.

“The victims have zero second chance, neither should their killers,” the group said in the post.

Ashland couple fights parole bill

Karren Fleet said the bill does not take into consideration what it would do to families of murder victims. Even those denied parole after 25 years would be eligible for additional hearings every five years afterward.

ASHLAND — Walk into Karren and Richard Fleet’s Indian Spring Road home, and reminders of their son David are everywhere.

There are photos throughout the home, including a large collage next to the kitchen.

“This is his whole life,” Karren Fleet said Thursday, on what would have been her son’s 38th birthday. She was pointing to his first photo, in which he’s a chubby-cheeked infant, and his last, on May 2, 2004, in which his arm is around his mother as he is drinking a beer, celebrating his 23rd birthday.

Less than a week later, on May 8, David Fleet, 23, was shot and killed inside his apartment on Whalen Street in Natick. His killer, Dwayne Taylor, was arrested later that day and convicted of first-degree murder by a Middlesex Superior Court jury in 2006. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the mandatory sentence for first-degree murder.

However, a bill has been proposed in both the state House and Senate that would change the maximum penalty for first-degree murder to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years. The bill would affect those already convicted of first-degree murder.

And that, Karren Fleet said, is unacceptable.

“When we heard about it, it sent me and my husband back into a dark hole for a week. It was devastating,” said Karren Fleet. “I need to stop it now. I don’t want this to go on and on. They never consulted the victims’ families, never asked any of us to be there.”

Karren Fleet has started a Facebook group called “Opposition to and Survivors Against Bill #s H3358/S826.”

About 75 members of the group are going to the Statehouse in Boston on Tuesday to speak to the bill’s sponsors, state Rep. Jay Livingstone, D-Boston, and state Sen. Joseph Boncore, D-Boston. They have, through their representatives, agreed to speak to Fleet and her group.

The hope, Fleet said, is for the bill’s sponsors to see that those who have loved ones who have been murdered still feel pain, even if their killers are locked up.

“None of them could have gone through this. If they had, none of them would be doing this,” she said. “It’s different. It’s different when someone is murdered. Someone took them away. It’s not a disease. It’s not an accident. Someone took them away from you, and it didn’t need to happen. I was in a very dark hole for eight years, until I started having grandbabies.”

David Fleet’s slaying occurred in the early morning hours. He had recently moved into his Natick apartment and was hosting a party. David Fleet did not know Taylor, who had been invited by someone else. Eventually Fleet and others kicked out Taylor and another person because they suspected Taylor was trying to steal.

About a half-hour later, Taylor returned and tried to get in through a sliding glass door. Party-goers held the door closed, but Taylor drew a handgun and fired through the door, striking Fleet in the chest. Fleet was taken to MetroWest Medical Center in Natick, where he was declared dead.

Taylor was convicted in 2006 and his appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court was denied in 2012.

“They (party-goers) all saw the gun, but David didn’t move,” said Karren Fleet. “He stood there and took it because he knew his sister (Melanie) was behind him and his other friends were there. He wasn’t going to let him in.”

Neither Boncore nor Livingstone returned calls or emails seeking comment about the bill. State Rep. Jack Lewis, D-Framingham, who has signed on as a co-sponsor to the bill, also did not return an email seeking comment.

In a Facebook post, Livingstone defended the bill, saying just because parole is allowed, doesn’t mean it will happen.

“This bill would not cause anyone to be automatically released,” he wrote. “It would just guarantee them the right to a parole hearing after 25 years. They would need to prove to the parole board that they were suitable for release. My bill just provides the right to a hearing. It does not change the parole board or parole standards at all.”

Another co-sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, also defended it.

“We cannot just throw people into prison without any chance of getting out,” she wrote. “Everyone deserves to have that possibility – and remember a possibility is not a guarantee; it is simply a way of saying that we recognize that people and circumstances change.”

Karren Fleet said the bill does not take into consideration what it would do to families of murder victims. Even those denied parole after 25 years would be eligible for additional hearings every five years afterward. That means family members will have to attend subsequent hearings and have to revisit tragic memories.

Fleet said she hopes Tuesday’s meeting will help convince legislators that the bill is a bad idea.

“I’ll tell them to go outside and take a look at the Peace Garden, where David’s name is on a stone,” said Karren Fleet. “We have to visit him in a cemetery. It won’t be over for us until he (Taylor is dead) or we are. He lives. He breathes. The sun comes up every day for him. It’s never over. There’s never closure. We’ll never know why he went back with the gun. He didn’t have to go back. This is a bad thing for everybody.”

Should life without parole be eliminated?

BOSTON — Now that the landmark 2018 criminal justice reform law is on the books, lawmakers are exploring additional ideas and “even harder work,” as Sen. Jamie Eldridge put it Thursday, including the possibility of releasing prisoners serving life-without-parole sentences for the most serious crimes, including murder.

Eldridge and Rep. Mary Keefe on Thursday hosted a meeting of the Criminal Justice Reform Caucus where the focus was on legislation eliminating life sentences without the possibility of parole. Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project said a record 206,000 people are serving life terms in prisons across the nation. That’s more than the entire prison population in 1970, he said.

In Massachusetts, 1,018 people in 2016 were serving life sentence without the possibility of parole.

“There’s beginning to be increasing questioning of these policies around the country,” Mauer said, adding that “people age out of the high crime years” and pose “very much diminished” public safety risks in their older years.

Under legislation sponsored by Rep. Jay Livingstone (H 3358) and Sen. Joseph Boncore, all people serving life sentences would have the opportunity for a parole hearing after 25 years, a change in law that would apply retroactively so that it would affect people currently incarcerated. Both bills are titled “An Act to Reduce Mass Incarceration.”

Noting the number of people serving life sentences has “skyrocketed,” Eldridge said the bill deserves attention, although he told the News Service after the briefing that as chairman of the Judiciary Committee he needs to fully review the bill and declined to comment on his position on the legislation.

“We addressed some of the non-violent mandatory minimum drug crimes, repealing them last session,” Eldridge said, referring to a law that also emphasized treating offenders for substance use addiction. “But now we need to get into, in some ways, the more nuanced discussions around people who are in prison for violent crimes and whether we should be changing the sentencing for some group of those individuals.”

A provision in the 2018 law permitting medical parole, Livingstone said, shows lawmakers are open to changes that reduce incarceration costs while taking into account the danger that individuals pose if released from prison.

Asked about her position on the bill, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, who attended Thursday’s briefing, told the News Service that she was still gathering information on the topic. In 1980, Ryan was the victim of a vicious assault and a witness to the murder of her then-boyfriend.

Ryan said the life-without-parole sentence is reserved for first degree murder, and outlined considerations for lawmakers weighing the bill.

“There’s all of those considerations of – what are we trying to accomplish through incarceration? How has somebody behaved while in custody? And as is clearly true, none of us would ever want to be defined by the worst act of our lives,” said Ryan, a veteran prosecutor whose district spans 54 cities and towns and includes a quarter of the state’s population. “And then you have to weigh against that the loss that victims’ families have suffered and sometimes it isn’t just the immediate loss, it’s the continuing piece. So, many of the things you heard about that continued for years when someone’s in custody, obviously the same thing is happening on the other side. So it is a balance. And then obviously our overall goal is the protection of the public safety and the concern about – what does real rehabilition mean? When and is someone ready to be back out in society, while the rest of us are keeping folks safe?”

Livingstone, who attracted 27 co-sponsors to his bill, noted it’s been 22 years since the last commutation of a sentence for a person serving life without parole. Commutations must be recommended by governors, and approved by the eight-member Governor’s Council. He also said the bill would apply to convicted murderers, people with stacked sentences and those convicted under the “three strikes” law.

According to backers of the Livingstone and Boncore bills, Massachusetts has a lower overall incarceration rate than most other states but ranks second among all states for the highest percentage of its prisoners serving life-without-parole sentences.

The number of incarcerated men over the age of 60 increased 41 percent between 2010 and 2018, while the overall prison population declined by 18 percent, according to Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, and it’s up to three times more expensive to house an elderly prisoner in the general population.

The proclivity to commit crime is “highly age dependent,” the group said in literature distributed at the event, adding, “The peak age is in one’s early to mid-20s, and continues to decline as one ages. It makes little sense to mandate that a person in their twenties must stay in prison for the rest of their life without a chance to later determine if they still pose a threat to public safety. Incarcerating people who pose no threat is a waste of resources.”

Membership in the caucus co-chaired by Eldridge and Keefe has increased in the past four years, Eldridge said, and the “standing room only” attendance at Thursday’s briefing “reflects the fact that as much as we passed a major reform last session, there’s still a need and an interest and enthusiasm for more reform.”

New York

“Elder Parole” bill in Albany receives criticism


Proposed law would make life without parole a thing of the past in Pennsylvania

South Dakota

Former judge, prisoner want to end life without parole for people under 25

A former judge and a current inmate believe that people who commit serious crimes under the age of 25 should have the chance to be released once they turn 50 rather than face a sentence of life in prison without the chance of parole. 

“There is so much research that has been done that people’s brains don’t really develop until they are around 25,” said Sen. Arthur Rusch, a Republican from Vermillion who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“We made a horrible, horrible, horrible mistake and a horrible choice of judgment,” but “I know that people can change and people can learn from their mistakes,” said Renee Eckes, a 42-year-old woman serving a life sentence for murdering a man when she was 19.

Rusch, a former judge and prosecutor, introduced Senate Bill 146 with bipartisan support. It’s also supported by local legislator Timothy Johns, a Republican and lawyer from Lead.

Currently, any South Dakotan over the age of 18 can be sentenced to life without parole for Class A, B or C felonies, all “serious crimes” that shouldn’t be minimized, he said.

First-degree murder, the only Class A felony, is punished by death or life without parole. Class B felonies — which includes second-degree murder, aggravated first-degree kidnapping, and successfully threatening a woman to have an abortion — are punished with mandatory life without parole.

Class C felonies, which includes first-degree manslaughter and first degree-rape, can be punished by up to life without parole. People can also receive a life sentence due to being a habitual offender. 

SB 146 would mean life sentences can only be applied to people 26 years or older. Anyone between 18 and 25 when they committed their crime would be eligible for parole once they turn 50.

The law “doesn’t say that they’re paroled” when they turn 50, just that they’ll have the chance to ask for it, Rusch stressed. The Board of Parole and Pardons would then decide if the person should be paroled.

SB 146 does not say if the legislation is retroactive so it’s unclear if it would apply to people like Eckes.

“Even if it doesn’t work for me, I would love to see that for other people,” she said.

Science shows that people’s brains are still developing until they are 24, Rusch said. He pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledging brain research when banning the death penalty and automatic life sentences for people under the age of 18.

“I do believe the science suggests that your brain functions differently and more like an adolescence in that time frame,” said Mark Vargo, Pennington County state’s attorney.

Vargo did not endorse the legislation but said he finds it “interesting” and “something worth looking at.”

He said Pennington County’s adult diversion program first focused on 18- through 25-year-olds since science shows the decision-making parts of the brain don’t fully develop until age 25. The program has now expanded to older adults.

Rusch said he’s also proposing this law due to concerns about prison population and costs.

“I don’t want for us to get into a situation where we’re building another prison in South Dakota,” he said.

Housing and caring for people for their entire lives is also expensive, Rusch said. The cost of imprisoning an inmate for one year ranges from $13,925 and $24,898 depending on which prison they’re assigned to, according to 2020 fiscal year data from the Department of Corrections.

“Some of our punishments are too punitive,” he said. “Is prison just for punishment and revenge or are there other factors that we need to take into consideration?”

Rusch also said that having the chance of parole can encourage prisoners to behave better and make the prison safer.

Renee said her childhood was marked with abuse and mental health struggles before she became addicted to drugs and committed her crime. In prison, she has become sober, learned coping skills and educates youth to prevent them from going down the same path she did.

She said she is confident she would stay sober and not commit any crimes if she was released.

Renee said she grew up in St. Paul with an abusive mother. She said she was sent to group homes and juvenile programs for running away and to a mental health hospital after trying to kill herself when she was 14.

Her mother kicked her out of the house when she was 15 so she moved in with her father and step-mother in Huron. She said they were wonderful parents, but she would still act out and run away.

“That’s what I was used to,” she said. “I was already pretty much messed up in the head at the time.”

Eckes dropped out of high school at 16 despite being a good student and was legally emancipated at 17. She moved back with her mother when she was 18 but her step-father eventually kicked her out and left her on the side of a road.

She then moved in with her brother in Watertown and became addicted to drugs and alcohol. That’s when she and 17-year-old Jessi Owens broke into a house to steal $9,000 from David Bauman, 47. Bauman unexpectedly returned and the pair — high on meth — beat Bauman on the head with a hammer. 

The pair pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Owens was re-sentenced to 40 years in prison in 2014 after the Supreme Court ruled it’s unconstitutional to automatically sentence minors to life without parole. Renee said Bauman’s relatives said at the time that they forgave the pair and trusted the judge’s decision.

Eckes said she continued to behave poorly and tried to kill herself in prison because she “didn’t really have that much to life for” since she was in for life. She eventually realized being a better person made her feel better and could help others. 

Eckes began attending church, joined the Native American cultural group, received her GED, and took substance abuse and mental health classes. She said she feels remorse for killing Bauman each day.

Prison staff trusted her to work in the now-closed garden outside of the walls of the women’s prison in Pierre. She now trains and schedules women who work in maintenance and volunteer to watch over fellow inmates on suicide watch.

Before the pandemic closed the prison to visitors, Eckes shared her life story with juvenile prisoners, high school and college students, lawmakers and others. 

“It made me feel good that I was able to reach out to young ones because maybe if somebody would have reached out to me at that age” I wouldn’t be here now, she said.

Eckes said she has a strong support system outside of prison: Church groups, her sisters and her parents — who she’s reconciled with. If released, she’d like to attend college and cosmetology school. She likes to cut hair and work maintenance but is also interested in a career that would help others like being a counselor or probation officer.

“I have a passion for kids” and would still give talks to them, she said.

Washington DC

New Bill Seeks to Make Over 500 Violent Criminals (Including Many Rapists and Murderers) Immediately Eligible for Early Release