A narrow path to freedom: Why commutations for Pa. lifers are rare

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Thurmond Berry served 39 years in prison before his life sentence was commuted by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2016. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Thurmond Berry served 39 years in prison before his life sentence was commuted by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2016. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

More than 5,000 inmates are serving life without parole in Pennsylvania’s prisons — more people per capita than any other other state. The only way for someone with a life sentence to be released from prison in Pennsylvania is to get what’s called a commutation — an agreement from the state to end that sentence early. Commutations used to be more common, but they’ve dropped in the past several decades. Since the 1990s, no governor has commuted more than five people’s sentences during his term. Why did the process fall out of favor? On this episode of The Why, WHYY reporter Laura Benshoff explains the answer raises further questions about the effect of politics on the criminal justice system and whether a tool designed to give hope is working.

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