New Study Finds 1% Recidivism Rate Among Released Philly Juvenile Lifers
Jane Roh, District Attorney’s Office, 215–686–8711, Jane.Roh@phila.gov
Research out of Montclair State University Further Shows that People Age Out of Crime and that Decades-Long Incarceration is Unnecessary, Costly to Taxpayers
PHILADELPHIA (April 30, 2020) — A new study conducted by Montclair State University researchers has found a recidivism rate (defined as reconviction for any offense) of just 1.14% among people who were sentenced as juveniles in Philadelphia to life without the possibility of parole and then subsequently released. This is consistent with a growing body of scientific research that shows people age out of criminal behaviors, that lengthy sentences fail to deter crime, and that lengthy prison terms both divert funds from public health and safety initiatives and are counterproductive to strengthening families and communities.
The authors of the new study, “Resentencing of Juvenile Lifers: The Philadelphia Experience,” examined the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (DAO) approach to juvenile lifer resentencing under two different administrations starting in 2017, after the U.S. Supreme Court made juvenile lifers retroactively eligible (Montgomery v. Louisiana, 2016) for resentencing under the 2012 landmark ruling that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles (JLWOP) were unconstitutional (Miller v. Alabama). The study examined the different approaches the administrations had to reviewing cases, and it examined the impact of release decisions on public safety. At the time of the Montgomery decision, Pennsylvania had incarcerated more juvenile lifers than any other state (521 people, with 325 in Philadelphia). Since then, 459 juvenile lifers, or 88%, have been resentenced in Pennsylvania across all counties — making Pennsylvania a leader in resentencing.
“Our work brings into question the commonly held belief that those incarcerated for violent offenses will reoffend. Here we have a group of individuals, all convicted of murder, with an approximately 1% reconviction rate,” said Tarika Daftary-Kapur, Ph.D., a lead study author and Justice Studies associate professor at Montclair State University.
“We hope these findings will help inform discussions around early release of individuals serving long sentences, especially in the current climate,” study co-author Tina Zottoli, Ph.D., added.
“This study confirms what we already knew from criminology: Longer sentences do not protect public safety; it’s the likelihood of being caught and the swiftness of punishment that actually deter crime. Even people who commit monstrous acts very young are not monsters. Overwhelmingly, they evolve. Overwhelmingly, they are capable of growth and change, and can safely be brought home. People who have been incarcerated for decades following offenses committed while they were young are especially deserving of a second look in the middle of a public health pandemic that is crippling communities and economies across Pennsylvania and throughout the country,” District Attorney Larry Krasner said. “During this pandemic, it is irresponsible to allow any population of people who don’t need to be in close proximity to become a virus incubator, whether in senior homes, industrial and retail locations, or in jails and prisons. The public safety of every one of us depends on stopping the virus from spreading everywhere.”
Researchers analyzed data and outcomes associated with 269 juvenile lifers from Philadelphia, including 174 who were released. Of the 38 cases that were considered by both administrations, the study found that District Attorney Krasner offered new sentences that were on average approximately 11 years shorter than initial offers by former District Attorney Seth Williams. The 174 juvenile lifters who were released through the time of the study will yield $9.5 million in correctional cost savings over the first decade, based on marginal costs of incarceration alone. It costs roughly $50,000 per year to incarcerate people in prisons and jails, but those savings will only be realized by shrinking the footprint of incarceration, including closing additional jails and prisons.
Many other countries have far less incarceration and far less crime — modern Germany, for example, has roughly 1/9th the level of incarceration and 1/9th the level of murder as compared with the United States. Modern Germany also forbids sentences of life without the possibility of parole — all adults are considered for parole after 15 years; juvenile offenders generally are considered for parole earlier.
The study has ramifications beyond JLWOP sentences, for Pennsylvania and other highly incarcerated states that have large aging inmate populations that are especially vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 160,000 people are serving life sentences across the United States, and another 45,000 are serving sentences longer than 50 years, or virtual life sentences. A 50-year sentence for a 16-year-old could cost the state approximately $2.5 million. This study suggests that Pennsylvania and all other states must consider early release opportunities for those serving de facto death sentences.
Doing so is particularly important as economies are in free fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic and gaping holes in America’s social safety net are exposed. State prisons spend an estimated $16 billion annually to incarcerate people over the age of 55 and $3 billion annually to provide health care to sick or dying people in prison. Annual costs to house prisoners past the age of 50 roughly doubles, according to a recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), because of greater healthcare needs.
Incarcerating people into their 60s, 70s, or 80s is also contrary to the criminal justice system’s stated mission, which is to protect public safety and deter crimes. Research shows that de facto life sentences do neither, and that swiftness of punishment — or solving crimes in a timely manner — is a far more effective deterrent to crime.
District Attorney Krasner joined the study’s authors along with justice advocates on Thursday to call for the Wolf Administration and General Assembly to take bolder steps toward reducing prison populations to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania. Among the participants of a vritual press conference were leaders of the Amistad Law Project, Juvenile Law Center, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP), and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).
“Pennsylvanians who are suffering through this health pandemic deserve for all public officials to do everything in their power to stop the spread of the coronavirus. This study reinforces that there are many more people inside our prisons who could safely be released back to their communities, because they no longer present a public safety threat,” said Sen. Larry Farnese (Phila.), minority chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I urge my colleagues in the legislature and Governor Wolf to take the commonsense steps I outlined earlier this month to safely reduce our prison populations and protect all of our communities from this deadly virus.”
“This report confirms what our own work on behalf of youth sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as children has shown — these men and women have already served far too many years, even decades, and nearly all of them can come home to their communities safely and, as importantly, productively. This is a population that deserves special consideration in the midst of this pandemic,” said Marsha Levick, Chief Legal Officer of Juvenile Law Center. “Thanks to three pivotal U.S. Supreme Court decisions recognizing that children are different when it comes to their blameworthiness and capacity for change, as well as key guidance from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, more than 250 juvenile lifers have been resentenced and brought home across the Commonwealth. In the midst of this public health crisis, where prisons are known hot spots for contagion, we must continue to bring home as many of these individuals as possible.”
“The extraordinarily low recidivism rate of Pennsylvania’s juvenile lifers demonstrates that letting them out of prison was the right decision and that it’s also right to allow elderly and medically vulnerable people who were given long sentences to safely shelter from COVID-19 with family,” Kris Henderson, Executive Director of Amistad Law Project, agreed. “Most people who serve decades in prison don’t go on to reoffend. Governor Wolf must expand his reprieve order to save countless lives.”
The Philadelphia DAO made data and records available to the study authors. Members of the DAO Lifer Resentencing Committee, which comprises the elected District Attorney as well as seven Assistant District Attorneys, participated in interviews with the study authors.
The average age at the time of offense for the Philadelphia juvenile lifers was 16 years and four months. The average age at the time of resentencing was 45 years, and the average age at the time of release was 51 years.
As of December 2019, only 2 of the 174 released lifers were re-arrested and convicted: one for Contempt and one for Robbery F3, a lower level of robbery. Four others were arrested but their cases were dismissed. The remaining 168 individuals have been living in the community with no known contacts with law enforcement.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is the largest prosecutor’s office in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in the nation. It serves the more than 1.5 million citizens of the City and County of Philadelphia, employing 600 lawyers, detectives, and support staff. The District Attorney’s Office is responsible for prosecution of approximately 40,000 criminal cases annually.