TRIBUNE: Group gathers in support of bill to end life sentences without parole

By Nathaniel Lee

Members of the group Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI) gathered on the step of the Capitol in Harrisburg on Tuesday to call for an end of life sentences without the possibility of parole in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Participants included the West Philadelphia-based Human Rights Coalition and a host of others who traveled to Harrisburg to support HB 2135, which was introduced by Rep. Jason Dawkins. The bill would make those sentenced to life eligible for parole in 15 years of serving.

Yusef Jones was among those attending. Jones said one of the purposes of the press conference and rally was to raise awareness about life sentences.

“Currently there is a bill in committee submitted by Representative Dawkins which asks for a parole eligibility date to be set at 15 years,” said Jones.

“Parole eligibility simply means that at that time the prison and parole administrations could review a candidate to see if he has redeemed himself, has made all of the prescriptive programs recommended and thereby begin to evaluate whether he would be a risk to public safety if he was released,” Jones said.

Jones, who served 33 years in prison, says that he is one of the original founders of the Lifers organization in Graterford prison and once released from confinement began activism to help others who are incarcerated and their families.

Kimberly King called the rally a much-needed event.

“We are fighting to get some of these harsh sentences turned around and to stop sentencing our brothers and sisters to death by incarceration,” said King.

King not only has a brother who is incarcerated with a mandatory life sentence but also is the sister of another brother who was killed on the streets of Philadelphia and therefore can relate to being the loved one of someone who is responsible for committing a crime but also as a victim who lost a loved one to criminal homicide.

“I have a story to tell about forgiveness and healing and letting people who have been through both sides that it’s not about revenge but understanding forgiveness and getting to the root of the problem,” she said.

The Human Rights Coalition (HRC) is a grass-roots nonprofit group of predominately prisoners’ families, prisoners, ex-offenders and supporters. It was formed to aid and support prisoners’ families in coping with the stress and hardships created by having a loved one incarcerated, as well as to challenge the punitive, retributive nature of the penal system; and, to work to transform that to a model of rehabilitation and successful reintegration to society.

Patricia Vickers of the HRC said some of the men and women sentenced to mandatory life sentences are not themselves murderers.

“A lot of them are not there for something as tragic as murder but may be there because they were on the scene, they weren’t holding a weapon themselves but could have been outside when the murder was committed, but they are also getting life in prison,” said Vickers.

“We feel that every human being has the ability to change and to grow and that’s what makes us different from animals,” she said. “Giving a person life in prison never gives a person a chance at redemption, to learn from their mistakes or to try to make things better or do better.”