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April 28, 2012

"Life Without Parole Is A Terrible Idea"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary by Professor David Dow appearing in The Daily Beast. Here are excerpt:

If California dumps the death penalty this November, abolitionists will probably dance in the streets.  But they shouldn’t, because the state would be abandoning one terrible idea only to replace it with another.

The so-called Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act, or SAFE, would eliminate capital punishment across the board in favor of life without parole.... If it passes, the lives of 725 prisoners currently awaiting execution will be spared. Instead of dying on a gurney from lethal injection, they will die in prison of natural causes (or maybe violence).

The impetus behind SAFE is largely economic. California has spent more than $4 billion on capital punishment since 1976, and executed 13 people.  And since well over half the costs of a death-penalty case occur before the appeals even begin, there is no way to lower those costs meaningfully, short of adopting a legal system modeled on that of Iran or the DR Congo.  So fiscal hawks in California, even law-and-order fiscal hawks, appear ready to write off the death-penalty experiment as a failure.

But cost isn’t the only factor.  Opponents of the death penalty have passionately embraced LWOP — as the alternative sentence is affectionately known — because it undeniably saves lives.  In 2005, Texas, which executes far more people than any other state, gave juries the option of imposing LWOP instead of execution.  The number of death sentences plummeted, from 30 to 40 a year down to the single digits today.... LWOP also appeals, of course, to voters who are worried about executing an innocent person....

[But] life without parole is as dehumanizing as death itself, and in some ways it is even worse.

On the plus side, LWOP saves lives, but that’s about it. In every other way it’s a nightmare: It gives up on everyone, regardless of whether they exhibit any capacity for growth and change; it robs people of hope; it exaggerates the risk to society of releasing convicted murderers; and it turns prisons into geriatric wards, with inmates rolling around in taxpayer-funded wheelchairs carrying oxygen canisters in their laps.

To the extent there is a coherent rationale underlying LWOP, it rests on two mistaken premises.  First, many people think we need to lock up murderers forever to keep society safe.  But it is a myth that murderers kill over and over again....

This brings us to the second premise, which is that sometimes we want to punish people simply for the sake of punishing them, to express society’s outrage at the commission of abhorrent acts.  There are indeed good reasons for a society to punish people who do bad things.  But is this really the message we want to send as a society?  That one horrible act will render you permanently unredeemable, no matter what you do or how you may change over the rest of your life?

It’s an undeniable fact that even people who do terrible things can change.  A kid who commits murder when he’s twenty can be a substantially different person when he’s fifty, much less sixty.  Maybe it feels good on some level to tell that twenty-year-old he will never see the light of day again.  But in the end, this narrow, angry, stubborn posture hurts us as a culture far more than it could ever hurt the kid....

Also, of course, prisoners who are eligible for parole are not guaranteed release. That decision is made by parole board members, who take into consideration what the inmate did as well as who he has become.  Certainly they make mistakes, but is that a reason for a blanket rule that everyone who murders should be prevented from even making a case for their release?   For every Willie Horton, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of paroled inmates who spend the rest of their lives respecting the law.

Most prisoners sentenced to life will never get out of prison anyway, because wary parole boards will be scared to release them (see, for example, Mr. Manson).  But LWOP’s core defect is that is prevents even reformed murderers from asking.  A society that embraces LWOP is a society that has thrown in the towel way too early.

April 28, 2012 at 10:34 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Mr. Dow got his own client killed early because he didn't know how to perfect an appeal. And we're supposed to listen to him?

Posted by: federalist | Apr 29, 2012 9:12:21 AM

I heartily applaud Prof. Dow for his honesty in letting us know a key fact California voters should bear in mind: That as soon as the ink is dry on the death penalty repealer, with it's solemn and essential promise that these killers WILL NEVER SEE THE OUTSIDE OF A PRISON AGAIN, the push will be underway to renege on that very pledge.

Not that this kind of bait-and-switch razzle-dazzle should be any surprise. The whole abolitionist schtick is to feign concern for victims ("closure" and related quasi-psychobabble), but naive victim families are only artifacts to be trotted out here and there when convenient. The name of the game is to ensure that the killer gets as close to no punishment is possible. This is one reason a standard line at sentencing is, "My client is not the same person who did that awful deed."

Sure he's not. The deed was done by some Martian who hasn't been caught.

Prof. Dow does not just California but the entire country a service by showing us what the real agenda is here, and it goes well beyond death penalty repeal. Voters should understand what's next on the agenda when they cast their ballots this November.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 29, 2012 9:46:55 AM

I am a note taker and reader at a local community college for students with learning disabilities.

LWOP not only turns prisons into geriatric wards, but into incubators of future unrest by inmates who now feel they have nothing to lose by targeting guards and staff for assault or murder; and no incentive to behave themselves as no rewards exists any longer for good behavior.

Posted by: william delzell | Apr 29, 2012 12:08:55 PM

We are not going to have nirvana in the area of criminal justice for quite some time so the fact any option in this area has significant problems is, to quote, "water is wet" material.

I'm unsure if LWOP passes if governors or pardon boards will lack the power some time in the future to commute sentences in some respect. But, regardless, the current situation often amounts to LWOP. The older residents on death row, sometimes senior citizens, underlines the reality. And, again, LWOP is seen by various people, including the general public who don't meet the stereotypes of some on both sides on this blog, as an imperfect better replacement to the DP.

I personally don't see the justice to a strict rule where no one is able to get out of prison forever, such as someone who commits a heinous murder at 20 and perhaps could in the alternative get out before they are dead. If such a person is out as 65, e.g., it just might be acceptable, especially if the person is released in some sort of half-way house situation. I think many people agree, since few are absolutists. They also might have moral or religious opinions on the subject, following in the path of let's say the pope.

The idea the LWOP is as or more dehumanizing than the end of human life itself is a tad hard to accept. Putting aside a few volunteers, the failure of those on death row to give up appeals suggest they themselves, even in the very restricted life of a death row cell, stay alive. But, it's useful to remember that LWOP, especially as some absolutist panacea, is a flawed alternative.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 29, 2012 2:13:05 PM

LWOP needs to be available for the most dangerous offenders. Not as a matter of retribution, but as a very important tool in promoting public safety. I disagree with Dow that LWOP amounts to "giving up" on people, and that it "robs people of hope." The most dangerous offenders can and should have meaningful lives in prison. We should encourage them to do so.

Posted by: The Death Penalty Sucks. | Apr 29, 2012 4:32:25 PM

I am sorry, but for some crimes, LWOP is the only punishment for some crimes.
I do not care if a murder can be reformed. Once they commit an heinous act, they should never be allowed to leave prison.
To let a murder go free because they are 'reformed' essentially says that it is alright for them to commit murder in the first place.

Posted by: jim | Apr 29, 2012 5:48:42 PM

I am not categorically opposed to releasing murderers from a long stretch in prison. I am categorically opposed to saying that they are eligible for release at some point when they are convicted. If I were a governor, the minimum most murderers would have to serve would be 30 years before I even considered clemency. (There are some murders that obviously fall outside of the typical heinous variety--e.g., prostitute killing her pimp.) Release for first-degree murder (a shorthand for the really bad ones, and I lump most murders into that category) should be a matter of grace and grace alone.

I think there should be a lot more death sentences, though. I'd expand to multiple attempted murders and certain recidivist criminals.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 29, 2012 7:15:25 PM

It seems to me that those advocating LWOP parole miss a basic point that makes this a relatively easy call. There is not a lot of cost in permitting re-evaluation based on additional information many years down the road. It is irratiional and wasteful to decree that a prisoner can never be released no matter what the circumstances or what the passage of time shows. and the argument that some released prisoners might re-offend is, of course, nonsense. That is plainly the case, but that does not justify the costs and injustice of imprisoning forever all of the others. That makes no economic -- or moral sense. Thie argument proves too much. By the same reasoning, we would never release any serious criminals because some will re-offend and lives will be lost. Finally, the argument about "closure" for victims' families is similarly flawed. LWOP is not bringing anyone back, and we cannot make uneconomic and wasteful decisions based on misguided sympathy for victims' families, many of the classier of which do not support misguided notions of vengeance. We have let our system get distorted Br over-solicitation towards "victims rights."

Posted by: Alex | Apr 29, 2012 8:12:19 PM

' It is irratiional and wasteful to decree that a prisoner can never be released no matter what the circumstances or what the passage of time shows.'

Circumstances or time can not change the basic nature of the crime itself. If the crimes was sufficient heinous, they should never be realeased period. Saying 'I am realy sorry for slaughtering that family' does not change the basic nature of the crime.

and the argument that some released prisoners might re-offend is, of course, nonsense. '

Some releasede prisoners to commit crimes after they are released. It is most certainly not nonsense. And yes, for that reason, criminals who commit serious offenses should be made to server there sentence and that includes LWOP


'. LWOP is not bringing anyone back, and we cannot make uneconomic and wasteful decisions based on misguided sympathy for victims' families, many of the classier of which do not support misguided notions of vengeance. '

So wanting to bring justice to victims families is misguided. And if a victims family wants the criminal to stay in prison that makes them unclassy or unworthy. That is nonsense.

I have said it before and will say it again, for some crimes, the only punishment is LWOP. To let them out early is the same as saying that what they did is okay,

Posted by: jim | Apr 30, 2012 12:01:33 AM

I am categorically opposed to saying that they are eligible for release at some point when they are convicted. If I were a governor, the minimum most murderers would have to serve would be 30 years before I even considered clemency.

Well, quite a few murders don't get you thirty years in prison, but anyways, if the governor is able to consider clemency, they are "eligible for release" if some governor decides to do it. I don't quite understand the logic of relying on one person (or a panel if the state requires it) and be "categorically opposed" to a law that sets forth certain guidelines that formalizes the process so it is not so idiosyncratic.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 30, 2012 12:19:48 PM

So wanting to bring justice to victims families is misguided. And if a victims family wants the criminal to stay in prison that makes them unclassy or unworthy. That is nonsense.

Letting a person out of prison at seventy, after they served thirty years, especially if they have severe health problems is not necessarily not providing "justice" to the victims, even if certain victims disagree with the result. Is it?

Posted by: Joe | Apr 30, 2012 12:32:25 PM

'letting a person out of prison at seventy, after they served thirty years, especially if they have severe health problems is not necessarily not providing "justice" to the victims, even if certain victims disagree with the result. Is it?'

If they committed an heinous crime, it most certainly denies justice for the victims. Even if they served 50 years and sick, the basic facts of their original crime which called for LWOP remains unchanged.
It is very simple,you either have the death penalty or your have LWOP. You can not have neither.

Posted by: jim | Apr 30, 2012 12:55:24 PM

Unfortunately, in the Federal system, juvenile, NON-VIOLENT offenders are also receiving LWOP. Tadd Vassell has served 16 years for a non violent drug conspiracy, arrested at age 18 and given the most time but the least culpable of those involved, he is the victim of ridiculous mandatory minimums and the so-called trial penalty. To learn more go to www.justiceforvassell.org

If you agree this is cruel and unusual punishment please sign our petition for commutation https://www.change.org/petitions/united-states-pardon-attorney-and-president-barak-obama-commute-tadd-s-sentence-to-time-served#

Posted by: Cathryn | Apr 30, 2012 3:52:30 PM

"It is very simple,you either have the death penalty or your have LWOP. You can not have neither."

That is a political statement, not a justice statement. If you have learned nothing else from the experience of the death penalty, it is that justice for the victims has little or nothing to do with the severity of sentence. The philosophy of sentencing needs to swing back from a reliance on the satisfaction of victims (families) and the mythical "closure" argument, to an appreciation that public safety is a better measure, and which is capable of future and ongoing re-assessment. LWOP and 60yr+ sentences, without review, have no logic, and contribute nothing to public safety in practice. I'm amazed anyone, least of all Republican conservatives, would wish to support such a state burdemsome practice.

Posted by: peter | Apr 30, 2012 4:15:56 PM

If they committed an heinous crime, it most certainly denies justice for the victims. Even if they served 50 years and sick, the basic facts of their original crime which called for LWOP remains unchanged.

This "justice" you speak of will never occur in the real world. Not in any state in the union or any country that I know of. It also is not a realistic approach. Soundly too since dividing "just" from "unjust" as letting some ninety year old die in a non-prison hospital the last month of his or her life is not exactly overly reasonable. Not that the overall public, yes even many victims (though I don't claim to be speak to them as some here seem to), thinks all "heinous crimes" warrant LWOP or death anyway.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 30, 2012 5:10:18 PM

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