HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Criminal justice advocates are calling on state lawmakers to end the sentence “life without parole.” They said it is not the solution to violent crime, but not everyone agrees with that.
The proposals these advocates support could give more thousands of people a chance at parole. According to the Department of Corrections (DOC), there are 5,050 people currently serving a life without parole sentence in the state.
However, one prosecutor said these proposals come too close to putting dangerous people back on the streets.
Activists gathered on the Capitol steps Tuesday afternoon, chanting “This is what democracy looks like.” To them, democracy means an end to life in prison without parole, with few exceptions.
“We’re caging entire communities when we sentence people,” Felix Rosado said.
Rosado started serving a life sentence at 18. Nearly three decades later, he was granted clemency and released.
“I lived it every day, I know first hand how brutal it is,” he said.
Advocates for ending life without parole also said these sentences disproportionately impact communities of color. According to statistics from DOC, two-thirds of people in prison for life are Black, while Black people make up just 12 percent of the state’s population.
“There’s a lot of talent behind those walls,” Rosado said.
He said not only does it cost society human potential, but it costs taxpayers money as well. According to a spokesperson with the DOC, people with life sentences do not cost any more than any other prisoner per year, but they do spend longer incarcerated.
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It costs the DOC $59,598 per year to house an inmate. For someone who spends 30 years in prison, like Rosado nearly did, it costs the DOC nearly $1.8 million.
Rosado is part of a group pushing for two bills in the state legislature. One would provide parole eligibility for almost everyone serving a life sentence after a certain period, including those with first degree convictions. The main exception is if someone has a first degree conviction for killing a police officer.
The other bill would grant the possibility for parole for old age or medical reasons. Activists said this is one more step towards justice.
Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo feels very differently. To him, that is not justice at all, particularly when it comes to people who have committed violent crimes including murder.
“They took another person’s life, they’ve deprived a family of this other human being forever,” Chardo said.
Chardo said people serving life sentences already have an option for a second chance through the clemency and pardons process.
Rosado said that process is too strict.
“Very few people get out through that way,” he said.
For Chardo, that is exactly how it should be.
“It should be the exception, rather than the rule, that someone would be eligible for release,” he said.
Rosado said it is inhumane to lock someone up for the rest of their life.
“I sat alongside many men as they took their last breaths of their death by incarceration sentences, and I can say that few things are more brutal,” he said.
Chardo disagrees — sometimes it is the only option.
“Somebody has taken a human life. I’m not willing to take the risk that they’re not going to take another. And I’ve seen it happen,” he said.
Activists also say, instead of prison, they want to address violent crime by getting more funding for social services like mental health and addiction treatment. Chardo is not against that, but he said there still needs to be consequences for violence.