Life without parole is a moral and fiscal disaster. Instead of seeking the release of prisoners through phony stories of exoneration, elected officials should confront the issue head-on and do the hard work of changing the law. Keep victims at the forefront of the process. Exclude cop killers and those that rape children. But accept that for most crimes, including certain murders, punishment must have an end. It is not the severity of punishment that changes behavior, it is the certainty.

“The penalty [life without parole] forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal. By denying the defendant the right to reenter the community, the State makes an irrevocable judgment about that person’s value and place in society.”

Those are the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy writing for the Supreme Court majority in Graham v. Florida in 2010. Graham involved the sentencing of a juvenile but the argument is just as persuasive and undeniable for adults. To argue otherwise would be to ignore our collective and individual experiences between the ages of eighteen and death.

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I was the elected District Attorney for the city of Philadelphia in my 40s. As the DA, I opposed early release for murderers and supported the imposition of life without parole for all cases of first-degree murder. Now in my 50s, my opinion has changed and I deeply regret my prior position. The analogy is not perfect, but I view my own transformation after having gone to federal prison as indicative of the absurdity of limiting Justice Kennedy’s words to youthful offenders. 

If I can change in my 50s, why do we ignore that possibility for others? Better yet, why do we ignore the evidence that countless lifers in our state system have changed for the better?

We must offer inmates hope and light at the end of the tunnel. While in prison, I saw first hand the power of hope. Two of my first friends in federal custody were contract killers — they were also men focused on rebuilding their lives, to become better fathers, husbands, sons, and friends.

In the case of lifers, “meeting is believing”. Not all lifers are rehabilitated but those that are tend to be remarkable, extremely wise, thoughtful, above average human beings. They include men and women of deep faith, PhDs, authors, amazing artists and inspiring leaders. That they have achieved these things since being incarcerated without the possibility of benefitting from them by getting parole is amazing. 

How many of us, faced with death by incarceration, would have the courage to take any action to improve ourselves or help others. This precious human resource is being wasted. Further maddening is that the state spends millions of dollars keeping these men and women in prison until they die.

It is a thorny political issue. Anyone who was alive when Mark Singel went from leading Tom Ridge in the governor’s race to losing in a landslide is aware of the political peril of releasing lifers. As lieutenant governor, Singel had voted to for the release of Reginald McFadden a convicted murderer serving a life sentence.

Shortly after his release, McFadden was arrested for the rape and murder of a 78-year-old woman. The consequences of McFadden’s crime affected more than the race for governor. Commutation for lifers is a rare occurrence now because of changes to the law passed in reaction to McFadden’s post-release crime. 

Between 1970 and 1990, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons heard and acted on over 1,000 commutation cases. During that time, converting a life sentence required a two-thirds vote of the members. After McFadden, that was changed to requiring a unanimous vote by a board that still contains elected officials with future ambitions. 

If I can change in my 50s, why do we ignore that possibility for others? Better yet, why do we ignore the evidence that countless lifers in our state system have changed for the better?

As a result, commutation is not a real option for the hundreds of lifers in the state system. Now, as then, the solution to mistakes like the release of McFadden is not to end the option of parole for everyone else, it is to do a better job evaluating candidates for release. (Many lifers who served with McFadden contend that given his prison record he should never have been considered for release, but that he was allowed to jump the line because he cooperated with authorities in the prosecution of inmates who were involved in the killing of prison guards during the Camp Hill riots).

The real solution is the hard work of changing the law. Get rid of life without parole. Change back to the two-thirds vote requirement of a parole board or, better yet, make it a simple majority. This takes courage, but it should appeal to both Republicans and Democrats. It will save money, restore men and women to communities where their absences are felt acutely, and acknowledge the religious idea of redemption which is shared by all faiths.

Unfortunately, both sides in Harrisburg run away from this battle. Democrats have avoided persuading their conservative colleagues and instead seek prisoner release by promoting and relying on phony stories of innocence. 

This is exactly the wrong approach. 

The case for ending life without parole is not through the inmate who 30 years later has developed some implausible theory of innocence. This approach undermines the strength and integrity of actual cases of wrongful conviction. It is a shortcut around a tough problem. Instead, supporters should be promoting those inmates who acknowledge and admit their role in taking another person life and have worked for years to make amends and meet their burden through transformation. This is the case we have to make: “Yes, he is a murderer, but he has served his time and he is a changed man. Let him out.” Covering this decision in the moral fig leaf of fabricated “innocence” is cowardly and wrong.

Republicans have certainly not covered themselves in glory. Their first step is to actually get in this fight and stop hiding behind definitive all-or-nothing pronouncements that have no place in a gray world. Murderers, like all sinners, are capable of redemption. Ignoring that fact is immoral and expensive. You fill in the rest.

Ending life without parole should be a point of agreement in this year’s governor’s race. Here is hoping.

R. Seth Williams is the former district attorney for Philadelphia, and was the first African-American elected as a district attorney anywhere in the commonwealth. Follow him on Twitter at @newsethwilliams.

3 thoughts on “R. Seth Williams: Pennsylvania should end life without parole”

  1. How does one make “amends” for a murder? Unless you are bringing the victim back to life, you can’t.

  2. One size fits all is not usually a good or workable solution… and blanket life without parole is an example of it. At the same time an even bigger problem is that the prison system is not geared toward rehabilitation (no matter what they say) or redemption but punishment and retribution. Another factor is that it is an industry employing thousands of people… and a making money industry as well (using the incarcerated) and messing with the “industry” could mean less employment and money coming in.
    Truly challenging, would be the hard work it would take to approach this subject balancing justice and restoration by looking at each perpetrator, victim and case individually. The truth is that people can and do change and we should make room for that, even in the prison system.

  3. Pennsylvania has 129 people on death row, and none of them will actually be executed. I am opposed to capital punishment, but none of those 129 people should ever, ever leave prison other than feet first.

    More, we have plenty of people in Pennsylvania prisons who received life without parole sentences for premeditated murder, for the deliberate setting out to kill a person, not just an uncontrolled spur of the moment thing. Yes, they might actually reform themselves in prison, repent their sins, be forgiven, and have a joyous afterlife, but they should still never see the public streets again.

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