Billy Penn in Harrisburg

2,700 Philadelphians are serving life without parole. Will they get a chance at redemption?

Supporters compared life sentences to “death by incarceration.”

Supporters of a bill to abolish life without parole gather in the capitol rotunda.

Supporters of a bill to abolish life without parole gather in the capitol rotunda.

Sarah Anne Hughes / Billy Penn
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HARRISBURG — Hundreds of people who support legislation that would give Pennsylvanians sentenced to life without parole a chance at release came to the capitol this week, expecting a victory. They didn’t find one.

Sen. Sharif Street of North Philadelphia asked the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday not to vote on his bill, after working for months to get it on the agenda. In the end, the senator believed he was one vote shy of getting SB 942 out of committee.

He placed the blame on the Office of the Victim Advocate, which he said emailed its concerns to committee members a few days before the vote. Street said the implication that he and the bill’s supporters didn’t sympathize with victims was wholly inaccurate. The boyfriend of his eldest daughter, he noted, was murdered within the past year.

The state’s official advocate for crime victims, Jennifer Storm, doesn’t show up in North Philly when there’s a shooting, Street pointed out. She “doesn’t understand our plight,” he said.

Not unexpectedly, Storm disagreed with that assessment.

“When he introduced this bill, we made it very clear to him we didn’t support it for numerous reasons,” Storm said by phone Tuesday. “It shouldn’t have come as a surprise.”

Storm said the bill would provide a blanket opportunity for release to people convicted of first- and second-degree murder, regardless of how “brutal” or “horrific” the crime was, after 15 years. She called that number “completely insensitive” to crime victims and said there research to support it was lacking.

The bill is now on ice until it can be reintroduced and relitigated next session. Its future is somewhat unclear because of the retirement of Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf, a pro-reform Republican.

But as family members of people serving life in prison declared publicly, the fight is far from over.

‘This is a fight we’re going to win’

Street is not the only General Assembly legislator to have introduced a bill that would give lifers a second chance. Another was Rep. Jason Dawkins of Northeast Philly, who first experienced the issue from both sides.

One of his brothers was murdered. Another committed that crime. The latter is serving a sentence at the same state prison where the man who killed his other sibling is housed.

Dawkins is a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which previously discussed his HB 135. He said his rural colleagues were “not 100 percent sure of how this would be applied. I think they were under the impression that everyone was going to released out.”

In the House, the bill had a “steeper” climb, Dawkins said.  In the Senate, there were fewer members to convince.

While that proved to be true, advocates for the Senate bill still came up short.

“Any day God gives us is a good one,” Street told the hundreds of people gathered in the capitol rotunda Tuesday. “I hoped it was gonna be a better one.”

Still, he said, supporters of the legislation had “touched the hearts and minds of many legislators.”

“We cannot give up,” he said. “This is a fight we’re going to win.”

More than 5,300 people were serving life-in-prison sentences in Pennsylvania as of September 2017, according to a report by the Abolitionist Law Center; 2,694 were from Philadelphia.

That number is higher than the total lifer population in 45 states.

An disproportionate number of incarcerated people serving life in Pennsylvania are black. “In Philadelphia, one of every 294 black residents is serving a sentence of death-by-incarceration,” the report states.

The theme of redemption for those serving “death by incarceration” sentences, as advocates call it, rang out in the capitol.

“People change everyday,” Patricia Marshall Vickers of Philadelphia told Billy Penn. Her son, Kerry “Shakaboona” Marshall, was convicted of murder at 17 and sentenced to life in prison. “You’re not the same person you were 10, 20 years ago.”

Patricia Vickers holds a photo of her son, who was sentenced to life in prison at 17.

Patricia Vickers holds a photo of her son, who was sentenced to life in prison at 17.

Sarah Anne Hughes / Billy Penn

When he son was sentenced about 30 years ago, Vickers said she was told to be happy he didn’t get the death penalty. It took her about 10 years to really understand what life in prison meant.

“You’re in there to die,” she said. “This is wrong.”

Vickers is a member of the Human Rights Coalition, which supports people in prison and their families, and the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration. She said it wasn’t until roughly six or seven years ago that she even told people she had a son in prison, but she’s since become a public face for families of lifers.

“Keeping a person in prison forever, ’til the day that they day to me is like vengeance,” she said. “It’s not helping the victim or the victim’s family. It’s not helping the prisoner. It’s just vengeance.”

What happens next?

Victim Advocate Storm said she agrees with Street’s “passion for wanting to reform our criminal justice system” and that there are racial disparities that must be addressed.

She would support a joint state commission “so we can really review these cases and explore the nuances that exist and see if we can’t carve out reform in that way.”

Dawkins and Street both pointed out that some people serving life without parole were accomplices to crimes and never pulled a trigger. Others are victims of domestic violence who killed their abusers before Pennsylvania had that type of self-defense claim on the books.

Storm, in turn, listed “vile and heinous” killings whose perpetrators would also be eligible for parole.

Eligibility is what advocates stress, as the bill would not provide a guarantee of release to anyone. But Storm said the bill would force victims to go before the parole board and rip off old wounds. She also said it would likely “cost a fortune” to handle all the new parole cases, with her office needing at least 10 additional staffers.

At Tuesday’s committee hearing, Sen. Greenleaf assured Street that there was a way forward for the bill. He added that reform legislation takes time.

That’s cold comfort for families of incarcerated people who are waiting to see if they’re loved ones will ever get a chance to come home.

“He’s a human being. He’s not an animal. He’s not a monster. He’s a person just like you and me,” Vickers said of her son. “He did something wrong. Does that define who he is the rest of his life?”