HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) — Black people make up about an eighth of Pennsylvania’s citizens, but nearly 70% of a prison population who will spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
Calling those numbers unconscionable and unconstitutional, six so-called “death by incarceration” inmates went to court Wednesday to challenge the state’s policy of denying parole to those sentenced to life in prison for felony murder.
“In the midst of a global pandemic and the eruption of a renewed and massive national movement for racial justice, now is the time for serious and urgent consideration of plaintiffs’ claim,” the complaint states. “Rooted in sacrosanct, cross-cultural values of redemption and liberation, plaintiffs request the right to parole eligibility so that they may be assessed as the individuals they are, possessed of dignity and humanity, and may have an opportunity to live outside of prison walls again.”
Announcing their Commonwealth Court filing this morning in a virtual press conference, attorneys for the inmates note that Pennsylvania has one of the highest life-without-parole populations in the country at 5,200. They say an estimated 1,100 people in this group doomed to die behind bars either took a life unintentionally, or not at all.
The six plaintiffs, two of them women, were all in their teens or early 20s when they engaged in robberies or drug deals that resulted in death. In some cases victims died of heart attacks, while in others they were killed by a co-defendant.
“The over 5,000 Pennsylvanians serving death by incarceration, don’t have the opportunity to go before the parole board and come home, no matter how long they are incarcerated and how much they’ve changed and grown,” Kris Henderson, an attorney with the Amistead Law Project, in Wednesday’s press call. “Despite the incredibly low risk many pose to public safety, their punishment ends with their death.”
Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center added that Louisiana is the only other state that imposes life without parole as a mandatory companion to felony-murder convictions.
He called the scheme “a prosecutor’s net that allows them to link the unintended consequence of a criminal act to anybody who participated in the act.”
“The parole board would then be required to create rules for considering those who are guilty of felony murder for parole eligibility,” he continued.
At 67, lead plaintiff Marie Scott is the oldest of the six prisoners in the suit, having been incarcerated since 1973.
Scott was sexually and physically abused as a child, according to the complaint, which says she was just 9 when she turned to alcohol to cope with her trauma. By 14, she was smoking marijuana, and by 16 abusing heroin. Three years later, Scott was high on pills while serving as the lookout in the robbery of a gas station.
Her co-defendant killed the station attendant but has since been granted parole and released from prison because he was just 16 years old at the time of the crime, thus qualifying for relief after the Supreme Court ruled against mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders in the 2012 case Miller v. Alabama.
Scott, whose hopes for a second chance are documented on the Women Lifer’s Resume Project, recorded a message for her attorneys to play at Wednesday’s conference. “I’m guilty of my crime and nothing can punish me more than I’ve punished myself,” she said.
Henderson tied the “death-by-incarceration” scheme to systemic racism.
“In addition to black lives mattering when police are killing people who are innocent by using unnecessary force, black lives also matter when people have committed serious harm and deserve to have their sentences looked at again and deserve to have an opportunity to come home and be a meaningful part of our communities,” the lawyer said.
The challengers highlight age as an important consideration as well.
Most inmates serving DBI sentences in Pennsylvania for felony murder “are aging or considered elderly by prison standards,” the complaint states.
Such populations are known to have low recidivism rates, meaning they “could be released without risk to public safety, and could go on to provide social, economic and emotional benefits to their communities and families.”
Grote expressed hope that their case will bring prisoners an opportunity “to come home and rejoin and rebuild and restore our communities.”
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, although the U.S. comprises only 5% of the global population, it houses almost 25% of the world’s prison population.
“Many people who want to reform our prison systems want to focus only on people who are blameless, ‘nonviolent offenders,’ but we won’t get a substantial decrease in our prison populations unless we are willing to look at the cases of people who have committed serious harm,” Henderson said.
The 40-page complaint alleges violations of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
“Life-without-parole sentences have been recognized as among the most severe forms of punishment, akin to the death penalty in their severity and irrevocability,” the suit states. “Defendants who do not kill or intend to kill as part of their crime constitute a category of offender with diminished culpability relevant for evaluating the constitutionality of the harshest punishments under the Eighth Amendment.”
In addition to Scott, Normita Jackson, Marsha Scaggs, Reid Evans, Wyatt Evans and Tyreem Rivers are all plaintiffs in this case. Each wrote to the parole board in May, saying they “present no risk to public safety” and are “thoroughly rehabilitated,” but their requests were denied.
Attorneys on the case hail from the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Pardiss Kebriaei, with the Center for Constitutional Rights, is also an attorney on this case.
A spokeswoman for Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections declined to comment Wednesday, citing a policy on pending litigation.