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

Pa. state Sen. Sharif Street has introduced a bill that would make people sentenced to life in prison eligible for parole after serving 15 years. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Pa. state Sen. Sharif Street has introduced a bill that would make people sentenced to life in prison eligible for parole after serving 15 years. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole could be a thing of the past in Pennsylvania under a bill proposed by state Sen. Sharif Street.

Under Senate Bill 942, people sentenced to life in prison would be considered for parole after 15 years, although it would not guarantee the right to go free on parole. Street argues that would provides a path to redemption for people with criminal records, while saving the state money — something that could appeal to Republicans, who control the House and Senate.

“There are also fiscal conservatives who support this because they believe that the purpose of our criminal justice system is to keep people safe, to rehabilitate people, and that to incarcerate people beyond that point is an expensive luxury that we can no longer afford,” the Philadelphia Democrat said.

The bill was referred to the state’s Judiciary Committee in October, but has yet to be brought up for a vote. Street plans to promote the legislation, along with a companion bill in the General Assembly, at a rally in favor of changes to the state’s criminal justice system planned for Tuesday in Harrisburg.

According to the nonprofit Sentencing Project, there were more than 5,398 people serving life without parole in Pennsylvania in 2016. There were also 2,358 so-called virtual lifers, or those serving sentences of 50 years or more. As written, Street’s bill would not apply to those given lengthy sentences that fall short of life imprisonment. That could leave an opening for judges looking to circumvent the law.

Street said he would work with the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole to figure out how it would be applied.

“I have asked the members of the parole board when they came before the Senate during hearings whether they believe this legislation as written could be implemented by the parole board, and received an affirmative response that they do believe it could be written,” he said.

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