Life Term Offers Some Justice for Victim

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Here is the op-ed piece I wrote that was published in Sunday’s Patriot News:

In Pennsylvania, Life means Life! This is one of the phrases I rely on to tell homicide survivors in the hopes of somehow providing them with justice for the horrific loss they are dealing with. In my time as a victim advocate I have seen close to 100 homicide cases come through Dauphin County. Each one has varying circumstances but all with the same result: a family left with an empty place at the table; friends left without the ability to ever call upon their loved one just to say hello; partners, wives and husbands left without their soul mates to kiss goodnight, and a community left with a void that can never be filled.

It is unfortunate to hear some advocate that lifers “deserve a break” and suggesting that 25 years in prison is enough time served for a “life” sentence. It is shocking that this argument can be made without even acknowledging victims of crime or their families.

I have a great deal of faith in our criminal justice system. When a death and/or life sentence is sought and imposed, it is done so with careful consideration by the district attorney and the homicide survivors, a fair trial before the offender’s peers is held and a just sentence is imposed by a judge and/or jury. It is done so with the certainty that when all is said and done, the offender will serve the time given. Homicide survivors expect that and as victim advocates we stress with them that in Pennsylvania, life means life; period.

We cannot now go back and commute sentences for certain killers just because over the years they have had good behavior. In my opinion, that good behavior is what is expected of any of us at any given point as citizens. It isn’t until a person decides to deviate from that behavior that we impose the law in the first place. For a person who has violently, carelessly and recklessly taken life from society without any regard for the wreckage it has left behind, a life sentence is appropriate accountability.

The justice is in the sentence given and served. This is what helps our homicide survivors sleep at night, the knowledge that our justice system worked and the fact that the person who killed their loved one will never see the outside of a prison is what brings a fraction of peace into their hearts.

While, I don’t doubt that some offenders have been rehabilitated in prison and now serve as mentors for others, I do not believe they should be released, as it does not undo the criminal act for which they are incarcerated for in the first place. If anything, they should serve out their time and continue to mentor others, as our prisons could certainly use more mentors.

We cannot start commuting justice for the sake of monetary value; if we begin this slippery slope it will result in a disservice to the jurors who took valuable time to thoughtfully come to the conclusions they came to, it will be a slap in the face to the prosecutors and judges who did their jobs dutifully only to have the result of their hard work be undone in the name of the almighty dollar.

By commuting life sentences we send a very dangerous message not only to violent offenders and those teetering on the verge of a criminal lifestyle but to the homicide survivors themselves by saying, “In Pennsylvania life now means nothing!”

JENNIFER STORM is executive director of the Dauphin County Victim/Witness Assistance Program.

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