Report Prompts Possible Reform to PA’s Second-Degree Murder Sentencing

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By Alexa Glista, Staff Writer


On February 12th, 2021 the Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity released a report titled, “Life Without Parole for Second-Degree Murder In Pennsylvania:  An Objective Assessment of Sentencing”. [1] The report is the result of an audit requested by Pennsylvania’s Lt. Gov., the Honorable John Fetterman, who chairs the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. [2] It reported on “data about population-level characteristics within the second-degree population, with specific attention given to initial sentencing, as well as findings that arise from that analysis.” [3]

The findings of this report are prompting the possible reform of Pennsylvania’s second-degree murder sentencing. [4] Discussing the report at a press conference Lt. Gov. said: “More than 1,000 people are sitting in jail right now on what amounts to a death sentence despite never having taken a life. That’s not because a judge thought the sentence was deserved. It’s because a one-size-fits-all law makes it mandatory. Any reasonable person who looks at the unfairness of these sentences will acknowledge the need for change.” [5]

In Pennsylvania, a second-degree murder “is committed while defendant was engaged as a principal or an accomplice in the perpetration of a felony”, and someone is killed during the perpetration of the felony. [6] This means that the murder does not have to be intentional and the law is applied equally to accomplices, no matter what role they played in the crime. [7] A life sentence without parole is applied to those convicted of second-degree murder and the only way to leave prison once convicted “is to have a sentence commuted by the governor or be found not guilty at a new trial.” [8] Ashley Nellis, Ph.D. and senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., said “Pennsylvania has used the blunt instrument of life-without-parole sentences as if all participants in a homicide played an equal role, creating a punishment system that isn’t just.”

One of the most prominent findings of the report is that most second-degree murder offenders are convicted when they are young. [10] The report found that out of 1,034 people with known ages at the time they committed second degree murder 73.3% were aged 25 and under. [11] The report analogizes its findings to following the “age-crime curve,” which theorizes how people “age out” of criminal behavior as they grow older and their brain reached maturity. [12] The report states “Violent behavior in youth is not a clear indicator of irrevocable incorrigibility, nor that an individual will pose the same risk of engaging in violence forever.” [13] Thus, according to the report “the point of life sentences is to eliminate threats to public safety” and because these offenders statistically “age out” of their criminal behavior the life sentence of second-degree murder is pointless. [14]

Imprisoning people for life is also costing a significant amount. [15] According to the Department of Corrections, the average cost to keep someone in a Pennsylvania state prison is $46,767 annually. [16] The report calculated just how much it costs for Pennsylvania to imprison these people convicted, “Calculated using the average life expectancy of 79 years, the 1,166 individuals currently serving life sentences for second-degree murder will remain in prison, on average, another 30 years each at the collective cost of $1.76 billion.” [17]

The factors and findings of the report have stirred much debate over the morality and cost of the second-degree murder sentencing. Many are calling for change and Josh Shapiro, State Attorney General said, “As a member of the Board of Pardons, I review the facts and circumstances of each case, and this report has provided valuable context for those deliberations,” Shapiro said. “The findings in this report also support the call I have made on the General Assembly to change the law so second-degree murder is not an automatic life sentence and to provide additional sentencing options, and I renew that call today.” [18]



[2] Id.

[3] Id.


[5] Id.

[6] 18 Pa. Stat. and Consol. Stat. Ann. § 2502 at (b) (West).





[11] Id.

[12] Id.


[14] Id.


[16] Id.




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