3 numbers that drive home the terrible reality of death by incarceration in Pa. | Tuesday Morning Coffee

November 19, 2019 7:05 am

A woman holds a sign calling for an end to death by incarceration during a rally in the Pa. Capitol rotunda on Oct. 23, 2019 (Capital-Star photo).

Good Tuesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

There’s no doubt that Pennsylvania has made plenty of progress on the criminal justice reform front in recent years. But for every step forward the Commonwealth takes in getting smart about the administration of justice, there’s still a step backward — as is the case with our ongoing debate about mandatory minimum sentences.

So before we dive into another busy morning under the dome, we’d like to call your attention to three numbers that really drive home the reality of one of the state’s biggest — yet most under-discussed problems — ‘death by incarceration,’ or those serving the functional equivalent (or actual) life sentences, despite never having taken a life.

They come via our friends at The Appeal, who are really doing some of the best journalism around on law-and-order and criminal justice issues.

Members of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration rallied at the state Capitol in 2018 for bills that would create parole eligibility for some second-degree murder convicts.

Here they are:

1 in 7: The number of people nationwide, according to The Sentencing Project, who are “serving a life sentence or what, by virtue of sentence length, is its equivalent. There are more people sentenced to die in prison than there were people in prison in the early 1970s.”

More than 5,300: The number of people in Pennsylvania who are serving these sentences, according to the Abolitionist Law Center. As The Appeal notes, only Florida is worse in terms of actual numbers:

“These sentences have been incredibly concentrated, with more than half of those people sentenced in Philadelphia. And while life without parole sentences have been used disproportionately against Black and Latinx people across the country, Pennsylvania is even worse than the national average on this measure,” according to The Appeal.

11 people: The number of commutations granted by Gov. Tom Wolf to people who had been sentenced to die in prison. In September, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons recommended commutations for nine people in prison for life. 

As the Capital-Star’s Elizabeth Hardison reported at the time, that’s the most the board, chaired by Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a vocal reform advocate, had granted in years. On that historic day, the panel voted on applications for 23 people, the most in a single day in 40 years.

“The situation of permanent imprisonment for more than 5,300 people in Pennsylvania is untenable,” the Abolitionist Law Center wrote in a recent report. “It does not have to be this way. In the vast majority of the world, it is not. DBI [death by incarceration] sentences are another peculiarly U.S.-based phenomenon. Around much of the world such sentences are not permitted, and where they are they are not imposed at anywhere near the levels that they are imposed in this country. The racial demographics of DBI sentences are a scandal and a human rights travesty.”

Pennsylvania is starting to turn the corner on balancing the rights of victims with true justice. Slowly, yes, but it’s starting to turn the corner.

Our Stuff.
Elizabeth Hardison
 leads our coverage this morning with a look at the compromise that’s apparently cleared the way for long-awaited reforms sought by victims of clerical sexual abuse. Hardison also has the details on a Senate committee sending Acting Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar’s nomination to the full chamber for a confirmation vote.

A state Senate panel voted to advance a pair of bills imposing new restrictions on a person’s right to access abortion services, including a hotly debated measure banning abortion based on a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.

And in the House, the Republican-controlled chamber approved legislation, with bipartisan support, that would mandate the burial or cremation of fetal remains — a measure that critics say would unduly traumatize women going through a difficult time and drive up the cost of abortions. Stephen Caruso has the story.

And here’s Caruso’s take on a House committee’s vote to advance a bill authorizing vouchers for the fiscally challenged Harrisburg schools — and only the Harrisburg schools.

And also, from CarusoGov. Tom Wolf met behind closed doors with Democratic allies in the Legislature Monday to smooth over bruised feelings on that election reform bill, and to build support for watered-down minimum wage hike.

The ACLU and other criminal justice reform advocates have reached a settlement with the Department of Corrections that will end solitary confinement for death row inmates, a policy that they argued violated constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.

From our partners at the Philadelphia TribuneMayor Jim Kenney’s office has bottled up millions of dollars in unspent revenue from the city’s soda tax, a new report has found.

On our Commentary Page, the president of Misericordia University in Luzerne County argues that a private education is a bargain for taxpayers and students alike. And a Penn State scholar explains how someone as unqualified as Gordon Sondland still managed to become an American ambassador. Sadly, America has a long, proud and bipartisan history of sending very rich nitwits abroad to represent us.

Just like in Pa., the majority of New Jersey voters want to legalize recreational cannabis — their elected officials aren’t in the same lane. The Inquirer profiles three Garden State lawmakers leading the push.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and former Pirates’ star Andrew McCutcheon served up some chili on Pittsburgh’s North Side and talked about reducing poverty. Y’know, as they do (via the Tribune-Review).
The Morning Call explains how Bethlehem city officials will conduct triennial inspections of every residential rental unit in the city.
PennLive has a special report on the state of organ donation in Pennsylvania.

Here’s your #Pittsburgh Instagram of the Day:

Kids in an ‘unknown’ number of Philly schools should stop drinking tap water and bring in bottled water instead, a physician tells WHYY-FM.
The state Supreme Court will consider a demand that the Pa. State Police disclose its social media monitoring policy, WESA-FM reports.
There’s more from that Morning Call/Muhlenberg poll: It finds Pa. voters split on impeaching, removing President Donald Trump from office (via PoliticsPA). 
explains why residents in border towns are pushing for an accurate Census count.
‘It was so remarkable:’ Talking Points Memo has the transcript of the testimony of impeachment witness David Holmes.

What Goes On.
It’s a session week Tuesday. Hope you brought your walking shoes.
The House gavels in at 11 a.m, the Senate at 1 p.m.
8:30 a.m., Main Rotunda: Rally for cap and trade.
10 a.m., Media Center: Bullying prevention event.
10 a.m., Main Rotunda: Pa. Legislative Black Caucus urges people to become bone marrow donors.
12 p.m., Main Rotunda: Rally against violence.
1 p.m., Main Rotunda: Sen. Katie Muth, Rep. Chris Rabb talk about the lack of consent when in custody
1 p.m., Media Center: Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Greene, and others on requiring legislative approval for Pa. to join the multi-state carbon compact.
2 p.m., Main Rotunda: House Dems, Big Labor talk bills that would give workers a stronger voice in Pa.
3 p.m., Main Rotunda: House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, rally for school choice.

Gov. Tom Wolf
 makes it easy for us — no public schedule today.

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition).
7:30 a.m.: 
Breakfast for Rep. Matt Gabler
8 a.m.: Breakfast for Rep. Wendy Ullman
8 a.m.: Breakfast for Sen. Tom Killion
8 a.m.: Breakfast for Rep. Jason Ortitay
8 a.m.: Breakfast for Rep. Doyle Heffley
11:30 a.m.: Luncheon for Sen. Michele Brooks
5:30 p.m.: Reception for Sen. Pat Stefano
5:30 p.m.: Reception for Rep. Carol Hill-Evans
Ride the circuit, and give at the max, and you’re out a mildly offensive $8,500 today.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Belated best wishes go out this morning to longtime Friend O’The BlogBrett Marcy, who celebrated on Monday.

Heavy Rotation.
Here’s one from Everything Everything. It’s ‘A Fever Dream.’

Tuesday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
blanked the L.A. Kings 3-0 on Monday night, denying the Kings a 4th straight win.

And now you’re up to date. 

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.