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September 13, 2011

"The Misuse of Life Without Parole"

The title of this post is the headline of this editorial appearing in today's New York Times.  Here are excerpts:

The Supreme Court ruled last year that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile to life without parole when the crime is short of homicide.  In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that life without parole shares “some characteristics with death sentences that are shared by no other sentences” in altering “the offender’s life by a forfeiture that is irrevocable.”

The sentence is no less severe when applied to adults.  Yet life without parole, which exists in all states (Alaska’s version is a 99-year sentence), is routinely used, including in cases where the death penalty is not in play and where even an ordinary life sentence might be too harsh.

From 1992 to 2008, the number in prison for life without parole tripled from 12,453 to 41,095, even though violent crime declined sharply all over the country during that period. That increase is also much greater than the percentage rise in offenders serving life sentences.

The American Law Institute, a group composed of judges, lawyers and legal scholars, has wisely called for restricting the use of the penalty to cases “when this sanction is the sole alternative to a death sentence.”...   The overuse of the sentence reflects this excessively punitive era.  But as the institute’s report explains, an “ordinary” life sentence is “a punishment of tremendous magnitude” whose “true gravity should not be undervalued.”  In the past 20 years, the average life term served has grown from 21 years to 29 years before parole.

Interestingly, even the institute’s approach to sentencing reflects the times. In 1962, when it last revised its Model Penal Code on sentencing, which is a blueprint for states to follow in shaping their laws, the group called for prisoners sentenced to life to be considered for parole after 1 to 10 years.  Now the group calls for them to be reviewed by a judge within 15 years, with the expectation that many will “never regain their freedom.”

Still, the group’s view about the proper relationship between crime and punishment is dispassionate and correct.  A fair-minded society should revisit life sentences and decide whether an offender deserves to remain in prison or be released on parole.  And a fair-minded society should not sentence anyone to life without parole except as an alternative to the death penalty.

September 13, 2011 at 08:25 AM | Permalink


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The editorial fails to even consider the possibility that sentencing more criminals to LWOP actually led to the decline in violent crime. I'd think it common sense that if you lock up enough violent (often repeat) offenders until they die, it'll lead to a drop in violent crime. Especially, since such a small percentage of the general population is responsible for violent crime and since so many of such criminals are recidivists.

Posted by: alpino | Sep 13, 2011 3:30:43 PM


Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 13, 2011 5:12:08 PM

shoplifting link for you: https://articles.sfgate.com/2002-02-08/news/17529191_1_three-strikes-law-shoplifting-or-petty-theft-third-strike
excerpt: 'Three strikes' ruled unjust in shoplifting convictions / U.S. appeals court decision may reduce terms for 340 inmates
February 08, 2002|By Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
In the latest blow to California's "three strikes" law, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday that it is unconstitutional to sentence a felon to 25 years to life for shoplifting.
Yesterday's unanimous ruling held that even a record of violence doesn't justify a life term for a minor crime that is punished much less severely in all other states.
The sentences imposed on Earnest Bray Jr. and Richard Napoleon Brown "are grossly disproportionate to their respective crimes -- stealing three videotapes and a steering wheel alarm -- even in light of their criminal records," wrote Judge Marsha Berzon of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

Posted by: folly | Sep 14, 2011 7:03:01 PM

folly --

Did you misread the title of the editorial Doug is talking about? It's "Misuse of Life Without Parole."

A sentence of 25 years to life, with the possiblilty of parole, is not life without parole. I wouldn't think that needs to be explained.

In addition, it's misleading to the point of being dishonest for the NYT to say that a person can get LWOP for shoplifting while never mentioning that what they're really talking about is LWOP for a THIRD felony. There is simply no such thing as LWOP for shoplifting.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 15, 2011 12:43:16 AM

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