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November 15, 2015

"Who's Really Sentenced to Life Without Parole?: Searching for 'Ugly Disproportionalities' in the American Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting and important new paper by Craig Lerner digging deeply into the realities of LWOP sentencing in eight states. Here is the abstract:

Critics argue that the American criminal justice system is rife with “ugly disproportionalities” and “brutal penalties on the undeserving.”  One particularly brutal punishment is the sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).  The punishment, conceived decades ago as a substitute for the death penalty, scarcely exists in the rest of the world. Today, while capital punishment wanes in the United States, steadily increasing numbers of defendants are sentenced to LWOP.  Furthermore, according to a recent ACLU Report, over 3,000 of the 50,000 inmates serving LWOP were convicted of nonviolent offenses.  There is no uglier disproportionality than a defendant, guilty of a minor crime, banished to prison for the remainder of his life.

This Article questions this narrative and therewith the contemporary wisdom as to the brutality of American criminal justice, at least in its imposition of LWOP sentences.  The author conducted a detailed study of every inmate sentenced to LWOP in eight states.  In a few states, it is impossible to find a single inmate sentenced to LWOP for any crime other than murder or the most serious violent crimes.  Even in jurisdictions that impose LWOP for crimes labeled “nonviolent,” the inmates are few in number and often present aggravating factors, such as extensive criminal histories or previous violent crimes. Inevitably, criminals sentenced to LWOP will vary in culpability, and some will appear not to merit this punishment.  Drawing attention to their plight can spur executive clemency in individual cases. But accusations that the American legal system is rife with “ugly disproportionalities,” at least insofar as this claim is applied to LWOP sentences in the states, appear to have little merit.

November 15, 2015 at 12:44 PM | Permalink


Sorry. If this study included adjudicated crime, in 95% of cases it was fictitious. One may not use fictitious data and expect any reliability of results. If I said the prisoners were infested by demons in 95% of cases, you could not take the result seriously. Infestation by demons has the same credibility as the adjudicated charge.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 15, 2015 12:52:59 PM

It didn't take me long to skim through the study and find the meat of his grief. "LWOP is often imposed when a more severe punishment, at a minimum death, is better calibrated to the gravity of the offense. LWOP sentences reflect the squeamishness of American legal elites about the death penalty, and their ability to frustrate the more retributivist impulses of the general public."

The underlying problem is, as Bill O. symbolized so well when he was posting here, is that of retribution there is no end. If we could cabin the retribution, if we could agree on what was the worst of the worst, then sure I'd be all for it. But as we have seen time and time again if a society lets retribution have its head its killing people for jay walking.

Posted by: Daniel | Nov 15, 2015 4:08:33 PM

"squeamishness of American legal elites"

when given a chance, juries and other non-elites repeatedly are equally "squeamish" or keep on voting or allowing in w/o any real concern those squeamish about the death penalty. It is not merely some "elite" problem. Turns out not only "elites" believe "calibration" here warrants some other penalty. As shown by various inmates themselves, "retribution" might be in the eyes more harshly carried out by keeping them in little cages too.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 15, 2015 7:24:21 PM

Richard Wershe is 27+ years into a life sentence for a non-violent drug offense which occurred when he was a minor (17 years old. Rick was arrested for doing what a drug task force had previously encouraged and paid him to do starting when he was just 14 years old. Why should Rick have to spend another day behind bars for the mistakes he made as a kid??

"In May 1987, when he was 17, Wershe was charged with possession with intent to deliver eight kilos of cocaine, which police had found stashed near his house following a traffic stop. He had the misfortune of being convicted and sentenced under one of the harshest drug statutes ever conceived in the United States, Michigan’s so-called 650 Lifer law, a 1978 act that mandated an automatic prison term of life without parole for the possession of 650 grams or more of cocaine. (The average time served for murder in state prisons in the 1980s was less than 10 years.)

Sentencing juvenile offenders to life without parole for non-homicide crimes was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, by which point such sentences were already exceedingly rare; the court was able to locate only 129 inmates serving them nationwide. Michigan eventually acknowledged the failures of the 650 Lifer statute—the governor who signed it into law, William G. Milliken, has called it the greatest mistake of his career—and rolled it back in 1998. Those already serving time became parole eligible and began to be released. Wershe is the only person sentenced under the old law who is still in prison for a crime committed as a juvenile. Prominent and violent kingpins and enforcers from Wershe’s day in Detroit have long since been freed. And yet Wershe has remained incarcerated, for more than 26 years." - From 'The Trials of White Boy Rick' by Evan Hughes.

Posted by: Dave Majkowski | Nov 15, 2015 10:08:05 PM

"LWOP sentences reflect the squeamishness of American legal elites about the death penalty"

This argument loses credibility when LWOP is applied to offenses that aren't and never were death-eligible in the United States. I've represented several people doing LWOP in the Federal system for drug offenses (all Federal life sentences are without parole), and though none of them were choir boys, none would have even been considered for the death penalty in pre-LWOP days. Their sentences do not result from squeamishness.

Posted by: Jonathan Edelstein | Nov 16, 2015 1:13:37 PM

I agree with Dave, 27 yrs for this guy for so ething he did when he was 17. Turn him loose. I bet he has a hell if time adjusting in the outside.

After being, abused in prison ( you know he was at a young age ) michgans 650 law, holy cow, thTs worse than The feds 3 strikes and your out. Its a buzz word, trendy.

This guy needs some training and lots of re-entry time. If he fails, the Bill Otis type will say, see thats why we gave him life. NOT.. I would gave trouble after 27 hrs, much less yrs. be bitter, and want to rip back at the world and take a chunch.

Not the way to go, once most see the light and walk down a better road, they have a better chance.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Nov 16, 2015 2:06:45 PM

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