Life in Prison Without Parole
The Truth About Life Without Parole: Condemned to Die in Prison
The facts prove that life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) is swift, severe, and certain punishment. The reality is that people sentenced to LWOP have been condemned to die in prison and that’s what happens: They die in prison of natural causes, just like the majority of people sentenced to death. The differences: Sentencing people to death by execution is three times more expensive than sentencing them to die in prison. And if we make a mistake by sentencing an innocent person to death, it can’t be fixed.
Death in prison is a certain sentence: Prisoners are not released early
No one sentenced to life without parole has ever been released on parole, in California or in any other state. Prisoners sentenced to LWOP actually remain in prison for the rest of their lives and die in prison.
All sentences, including the death penalty, are equally subject to clemency from the governor. However, no Democratic or Republican governor has ever granted clemency to a prisoner serving an LWOP sentence in California, and no such prisoner has ever been released on parole.
The last time a governor used his power of executive clemency in a murder case was more than 30 years ago, when Ronald Reagan commuted the death sentence of a mentally ill inmate to a life sentence.
Death in prison is a swift sentence: Victims' families prefer LWOP
Because death is different and mistakes cannot be corrected, a death sentence results in years of mandatory appeals that often result in reversal. In a sample of 350 death sentences, 118, or nearly one-third, were reversed in part or in whole. Further, nearly 60 percent of the cases in this sample were still in various stages of appeals as of 2002. For each of the last three executions in California, more than 25 years had been spent in appeals before the executions finally occurred. The current average for appeals is 17 years—and getting longer every day.
Unlike death penalty cases, however, LWOP sentences receive no special consideration on appeal, which limits the possibility they will be reduced or reversed. A person sentenced to die in prison receives only one automatic appeal, not several, and is not provided any court-appointed attorneys after this appeal is complete, usually within two years of the initial sentence.
California has the largest death row in the country with more than 660 prisoners. But more than four times as many prisoners have died of other causes while awaiting execution than have actually been executed. In contrast, when prisoners are sentenced to prison until death, they begin serving their sentence immediately. LWOP allows victims’ survivors to move on, rather than keeping them trapped in decades of court hearings and waiting for an execution to occur.
For these reason, the survivors of murder victims often feel that the death penalty system only prolongs their pain and does not provide the resolution they need, while the finality of LWOP sentences allows them to move on, knowing justice is being served.
Death in prison is a severe sentence
Spending even a small amount of time in California’s overcrowded, dangerous prisons is not pleasant. Spending thirty years there, growing sick and old, and dying there, is a horrible experience. This is especially true given the unconstitutional failure to provide adequate health care to California’s prisoners.
Prisoners condemned to die in prison are not given any special treatment and, in fact, have less access to programs than other prisoners. They are housed in high security facilities with few privileges, far away from any relatives, and in crowded group cells. Ironically, people on death row are provided much more comfortable single cells and sometimes gain celebrity and attention just by being there.
Death in prison is a sentence that saves money
The death penalty is significantly more expensive than condemning a person to die in prison. Simply housing prisoners on death row costs California tax payers an additional $90,000 per prisoner per year, above what it would cost to house them with the general prison population, which adds up to $59 million a year. The price tag for California’s new death row is $336 million. All of those costs would be avoided if the people on death row were sentenced to die in prison and moved to the general population.
Viewed another way, we spent $250 million to carry out the sentences of the 11 prisoners executed between 1977 and 2002, money that could have been spent on other public safety programs, if those prisoners had been sentenced to die in prison instead of executed.
Death in prison protects against wrongful execution
More than 200 innocent men and women have been freed from prison in California after it was discovered that they were wrongfully convicted; three of them were sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit. Simply put, the possibility of the state executing an innocent man or woman is reason enough to question the necessity of the death penalty when there is an alternative.
The death penalty costs more, delivers less, and puts innocent lives at risk. Life without parole provides swift, severe, and certain punishment. It provides justice to survivors of murder victims and allows more resources to be invested into solving other murders and preventing violence. Sentencing people to die in prison is the sensible alternative for public safety and murder victims’ families.
What Is Life in Prison without Parole?
General Reference (not clearly pro or con)
Law.com, an online resource for legal news and information, in a dictionary entry accessed on Aug. 18, 2008, defined life in "prison without the possibility of parole" as the following:
"[A] sentence sometimes given for particularly vicious criminals in murder cases or to repeat felons, particularly if the crime is committed in a state which has no death penalty, the jury chooses not to impose the death penalty, or the judge feels it is simpler to lock the prisoner up and 'throw away the key' rather than invite years of appeals while the prisoner languishes on death row. Opponents of capital punishment often advocate this penalty as a substitute for execution. It guarantees the criminal will not endanger the public, and the prospect of never being outside prison is severe punishment. Contrary arguments are that this penalty does not deter murderers, there is always the possibility of escape or killing a guard or fellow prisoner, or some soft-hearted Governor may someday reduce the sentence."
Aug. 18, 2008 - Law.com
Derral Cheatwood, PhD, Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas, San Antonio, in his entry for the 1996 edition of the Encyclopedia of American Prisons titled "Life Without Parole," wrote:
"A life-without-parole sanction is a legal provision that specifies that the remainder of the criminal's natural life will be spent in prison. The life-without-parole sanction gained popularity as people realized that a normal life sentence, even a 'natural life' sentence, does not necessarily mean that the offender will be behind bars for life. Almost every state has a provision in its laws so that an offender sentenced to life becomes eligible for parole after a set number of years, or can accrue 'good time' credits and thus be released. Further, in most states the governor, sometimes in concert with a board, may commute a prisoner's sentence or may pardon an individual. In those states, a governor could pardon a prisoner with a life sentence outright, or could commute a life-with-out-parole sentence so that the individual would then be eligible for parole...
There are two fundamental types of life-without-parole statutes. One addresses the problem of habitual offenders or career criminals, while the other reflects a just-deserts morality toward the most serious criminal offenders. In the vast majority of the states with such statutes, the sanction may be applied for a single crime, most commonly first degree murder, rather than for any pattern of criminal behavior. Since the majority of these statutes apply to first degree murder, they are referred to as capital offender statutes. As of 1990, approximately thirty states had some variation on a life-without-parole sanction for capital offenders. The laws are quite similar, with minor variations in each state. In six states the life-without-parole provision is found among the legislated duties and responsibilities of the parole board or parole commission. These laws restrict the authority of the parole board to consider parole or early release in specified capital cases.
The penalty may be an alternative to capital punishment or to a normal life sentence, depending upon the circumstances of the offense and offender..."
1996 - Derral Cheatwood, PhD
Adam Liptak, JD, Legal Correspondent and Columnist for the New York Times, in an Oct. 2, 2005 article titled "To More Inmates, Life Term Means Dying Behind Bars," wrote:
"A survey by The New York Times found that about 132,000 of the nation's prisoners, or almost 1 in 10, are serving life sentences. The number of lifers has almost doubled in the last decade, far outpacing the overall growth in the prison population. Of those lifers sentenced between 1988 and 2001, about a third are serving time for sentences other than murder, including burglary and drug crimes.
Growth has been especially sharp among lifers with the words 'without parole' appended to their sentences. In 1993, the Times survey found, about 20 percent of all lifers had no chance of parole. Last year, the number rose to 28 percent.
The phenomenon is in some ways an artifact of the death penalty. Opponents of capital punishment have promoted life sentences as an alternative to execution. And as the nation's enthusiasm for the death penalty wanes amid restrictive Supreme Court rulings and a spate of death row exonerations, more states are turning to life sentences.
Defendants facing a potential death sentence often plead to life; those who go to trial and are convicted are sentenced to life about half the time by juries that are sometimes swayed by the lingering possibility of innocence.
As a result the United States is now housing a large and permanent population of prisoners who will die of old age behind bars. At the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, for instance, more than 3,000 of the 5,100 prisoners are serving life without parole, and most of the rest are serving sentences so long that they cannot be completed in a typical lifetime...
Fewer than two-thirds of the 70,000 people sentenced to life from 1988 to 2001 are in for murder, the Times analysis found. Other lifers -- more than 25,000 of them -- were convicted of crimes like rape, kidnapping, armed robbery, assault, extortion, burglary and arson. People convicted of drug trafficking account for 16 percent of all lifers"
Oct. 2, 2005 - Adam Liptak, JD
The Meaning of Life Without Parole
It is the midpoint of autumn—the time of year when winter begins to crawl its way onto your skin—and night is beginning to fall as I arrive to teach my writing class at a state prison in Massachusetts. On particularly windy evenings like this, the tops of trees sway back and forth. The sounds of their fraying leaves wrestle against one another like the bristles of an old broom along a wooden floor—its old, worn edges bending and breaking as it moves across the room.
In a classroom on the second floor of this prison, sixteen men in faded blue and gray jumpsuits await the start of class. Each window—on opposite sides of the room—remains a few inches open, just enough to allow the breeze to somersault its way across the room and out again. An enormous concrete wall, topped with barbed wire, demarcates the perimeter of the facility. You are reminded that you are, in fact, inside of a cage.
Here, at one of the state’s more rehabilitation-friendly institutions, there are ample programs for the men to participate in, including sports leagues, a chess club, writing classes, a ministry, and vocational courses. You may, in fact, find yourself forgetting the limits of your freedom, even if just for a moment. But it is important to remind yourself of this fallacy. To look around—at the guards, their black uniforms juxtaposed against the gray halls they patrol, at the perches from which they watch everyone beneath them, at the intercom that informs you when and where you are allowed to move—is to be reminded that this is a space in which the state has made it policy to strip people of agency over their bodies. A cage that allows someone to walk around inside of it is still a cage.
Inside of this cage, countless men are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. They have, fundamentally, been sentenced to die in prison. For a number of them, the sentences they are serving are for crimes that were committed when they were teen-agers.
Near the end of January, the Supreme Court ruled, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, that those serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles would have the opportunity to make the case for a chance at a second hearing. This decision makes retroactive a 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama, stating that life without the possibility of parole for juveniles is unconstitutional. Among those who have been waiting anxiously on the Montgomery decision is a student in my class whom I’ll call Neal.
Neal’s long beard protrudes from his chin and jawbone, patches of gray scattered haphazardly across the small forest of tight black curls. His oversized sweatshirt and sweatpants belie his rotund frame, and the incandescent light from above reflects off of his cleanly shaven head. His glasses sit precariously on his nose, teetering on the edge of his nostrils. The intonation in his voice connotes a question, even when he is not asking one.
Today, when it is time for each of the men to share his work from the previous week, Neal makes his way to the front of the class and places several pieces of loose-leaf paper atop our makeshift lectern. He adjusts his glasses, and strokes the side of his beard as if to convince his mouth to open. He looks around at each of us, looks down again, and begins to share a story of his childhood. His youth, like many of ours, began with the sort of innocence that shields us from fully absorbing all that transpires around us. Soon, however, his father began to physically abuse him, his brother, and his mother. His mother tried to find an escape through crack cocaine. She became emotionally, and often physically, absent.
Despite an absent mother and abusive father, Neal did his best to hold on to some semblance of a childhood, searching for friendship, mentorship, and guidance anywhere he might find it. He did not find it in a school that failed to support him. He did not find it in a family that had been ripped apart by violence. When he couldn’t find it anywhere else, he fell into the world of gangs and drug dealing; they would look out for him when no one else would. “Finding acceptance in the streets was clearly the wrong choice, but I did what I thought was right at the time,” he said. “I saw more than any eleven-year-old should ever have to experience.” Still in the midst of his teens, and in the heat of a confrontation, Neal took someone’s life. He is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
In the conversation around mass incarceration, the contemporary political discourse often centers on the notion that if we simply release, or reduce the sentences of, all of the nonviolent drug offenders, we will be able to solve the problem of our enormous prison population. This is false. According to the latest Department of Justice statistics, only sixteen per cent of incarcerated people in state prisons are serving sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Fifty-three per cent are serving sentences for violent offenses, and about nineteen per cent for property offenses, like burglary or larceny. “Even if every single nonviolent drug offender were released tomorrow,” Gilad Edelman wrote last year, “the [U.S.] incarcerated population would stand at around 1.7 million—still nearly a fifth of the world total.”
The much more difficult, and perhaps more necessary, question about incarceration is what our efforts to reduce our prison population mean for people like Neal, those who did indeed commit a violent crime and who are subsequently spending decades upon decades behind bars.
Miller v. Alabama, and now Montgomery v. Louisiana, force us to reckon with this question, but if we are in fact moving toward meaningful decarceration more must be done. If the espoused mission of departments of correction is to “promote public safety by managing offenders while providing care and appropriate programming in preparation for successful reentry into the community”—as stated by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections—we must ask ourselves if putting men and women who committed crimes when they were children, or even young adults, in prison for the rest of their lives moves us toward that goal. Further, if the purpose of incarceration is public safety, what does it mean to keep people in prison when they are no longer a threat to society?
Although it was once assumed that adolescent development was complete by age eighteen, emerging research demonstrates that the brain does not finish developing until one’s mid-twenties, specifically the prefrontal cortex, which controls decision-making, risk management, and impulse control. Additionally, after a certain age, one’s likelihood of committing another violent offense decreases dramatically. This is becoming increasingly relevant because, at present, about ten per cent of incarcerated people are fifty-five or older, and by 2030, according to a report by the A.C.L.U., that percentage will grow to a third of our prison population. This demographic’s average likelihood of committing another crime is ever-diminishing.
As a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the law now states that people seventeen and younger cannot be sentenced to life without parole, except in the rarest cases. But what about those who committed crimes when they were eighteen? Twenty-one? Twenty-three? Is someone who committed a crime at twenty-five the same person he or she is at sixty-five? We must ask ourselves these questions because mass incarceration is not merely the result of putting away too many people for nonviolent drug offenses; it is the result of putting people who committed violent offenses away for longer than is necessary to promote public safety.
Additionally, we must also contend with the fact that many of those who have been imprisoned have, because of systemic disinvestment by the state, grown up in conditions that facilitated their pathway to prison. It is easy to lob moral disapprobation when we are not caught in the web of structural violence and intergenerational poverty ourselves. As is the case with adolescence, poverty clouds judgment and restricts choices. This is not meant to excuse, it is meant to contextualize.
Neal’s story of abuse reflects how those who have witnessed or been on the receiving end of physical violence are often those more likely to engage in violent behavior later in life. His story of poverty and neglect reflects a diminished moral agency, as he grew up in an environment that has been systematically stripped of resources as a matter of public policy. In a study by Harvard sociologist Bruce Western, forty per cent of the recently incarcerated men and women interviewed in the Boston area had witnessed a killing during their childhood. So, beyond rationally responding to one’s social context, sometimes the very notion of what is rational, particularly for young people who grow up surrounded by violence, becomes much more complicated. What is choice when in the midst of ubiquitous trauma? What is agency when you have been dispossessed of your innocence?
One might contend, and quite legitimately, that someone who has been murdered by another person will never have the opportunity to grow, heal, or change. This opportunity has been taken away from the victim, thus it should also be taken away from their murderers. The place from which this sentiment arises is certainly understandable. But, as a matter of public policy, we should ask whether or not we want to be the type of country that allows people who demonstrate no legitimate threat to public safety the opportunity to move beyond what they have previously done.
Neal does not pretend that he has done nothing wrong; in fact, over twenty years have passed, and remorse for his crime is an ever-present part of life. He speaks and writes often of the victim’s family, how he cannot imagine what he has put them through. He has spent his entire tenure behind bars participating in education programs, cognitive-thinking programs, drug rehabilitation, and P.T.S.D. treatment. “I’m not the same person I was before,” he says. If released, Neal says that his mission is to work to insure that young people do not get caught in the same web of drugs and violence that led him here.
Neal is also deeply cognizant of the way that the broader world perceives him. He knows that his story is all too familiar to many, but that he and many of the men in the prison alongside him have undergone a process of fundamental rehabilitation, and are prepared to meaningfully contribute to society again.
In his opinion on Montgomery v. Louisiana, Justice Kennedy wrote, “Prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.” The question is not if Mr. Montgomery, Neal, or others like them should be excused for the crimes they committed. The question is whether it makes good public policy—does it make us safer and align with our espoused notions of justice—to keep aging men and women in prison until the day they die?
When I leave the prison, I button my coat and secure my scarf. The wind is especially strong. The trees move from side to side, not by their branches, but from the core of their trunks. I know that but for the arbitrary nature of circumstance, it could have been me sitting for decades inside of prison, rather than walking away from one. It is easy to singularly define people by the worst thing that they have ever done, but it becomes more difficult to imagine what we would want the world to do if it were us.