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August 16, 2009

Examining life sentences (and their connnection to death) in America's heartland

Today's Des Moines Register has this interesting article, headlined "In Iowa prisons, life means life." Here are a few excerpts:

Iowa is one of the most difficult states in the nation for an inmate serving a life sentence to gain release, according to a study issued last month by the Sentencing Project, a Washington advocacy group.

Iowa's three most recent governors have commuted life sentences only nine times in 26 years. At the same time, the population of lifers in Iowa's prison system has risen dramatically, from 162 inmates in 1983 to 617 today, an increase of 281 percent.

Critics want to reduce that number, citing the high cost in dollars - nearly $19 million a year to house current lifers - and in lost human potential. But that notion threatens to disturb Iowa's uneasy truce over capital punishment: Iowa lawmakers have repeatedly rejected the death penalty, but only because "life means life" for the most serious crimes, noted Corwin Ritchie, executive director of the Iowa County Attorneys Association.

The issue highlights the conflict between two deeply held societal views about crime and punishment: that everyone deserves a second chance, and that some crimes against society are so heinous that criminals must forever forfeit their freedom.... Iowa's growing number of lifers reflects a national trend. Throughout the United States, more than 140,000 individuals are incarcerated with life sentences, according to the Sentencing Project report, "No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America." State legislators have stepped up their fight against crime by expanding which crimes result in life sentences, restricting parole and increasing the use of life sentences without parole, the report said....

During the 2009 session of the General Assembly, legislation was introduced to give another chance to some inmates serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were juveniles. It would have allowed them to apply for parole or work release after serving at least 15 years. The legislation was pushed by groups such as the Iowa Coalition to Oppose Life Without the Possibility of Parole for Youth, but it never came to a vote.

Ritchie, who heads the Iowa County Attorneys Association, said his organization continues to support Iowa's imposition of a life sentence without parole for the most serious crimes. "It is an excellent alternative to the problems associated with the death penalty," he said....

State Rep. Clel Baudler, a Greenfield Republican and retired state trooper, said he is willing to consider the possibility of having the Legislature expand parole provisions for lifers, but only if capital punishment is included in the debate: "I truly believe there are some crimes that deserve the death penalty."

Other recent posts on life sentences:

August 16, 2009 at 11:33 AM | Permalink


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"Iowa is one of only six states - along with Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania and South Dakota, as well as the federal system - where all life sentences are imposed without automatic provisions for parole."

There's four kinds of sentences: fixed number of years, life with, life without, and death. There are states that have life with and death, but no life without parole. It seems the choice of life without and fixed, but no life with, is just as bad.

Posted by: . | Aug 16, 2009 2:18:20 PM

The fact of the matter is that not everyone deserves a second chance. Some people are just evil and will always be a danger to society. For others, their crimes are to heinous, they lost any chance for a second chance. There is nothing wrong with life without parole. With very few exceptions, if at all, the people doing life should die in prison.

Posted by: Jim | Aug 16, 2009 2:53:49 PM

One question that needs a response is why we are (and why we should be) almost alone among Western industrialized countries in commonly imposing LWOP parole sentences? Are other countries just wrong, and we have it right? I think it is a reasonable assumption that many (and perhaps a great majority) of people who committed horrible crimes in their youth are not really dangerous several decades later. And parole boards likely can do a good job sifting among parole applicants. It is hard to argue seriously that the occasional parole mistakes is sufficient justification for denying parole to thousands of applicants who could contribute to society and not re-offend -- all cost benefit analysis aside. In addition, it is bad public policy to make irreversible decisions ex ante and eliminate all opportunities to make decisions based on much better information many years ex post. We have a annecodate-driven, overly populist way of dealing with these issues in this country. (Because Willie Horton re-offended, we should get rid of institutional parole?) Not a very proud example of American exceptionalism.

Posted by: Mark | Aug 17, 2009 8:36:04 PM

Hello, just nice to know that there are things in the works for people who have rehabilitated themselves in prison..My loved one has been incarcerated for 30 years for crime as a juvenile..and is fighting for release...and trust me its a FIGHT..that we are praying that GOD will send more angels like u to help those that have found him and are really ready to enter into society again..thanks for listening..wendi

Posted by: Wendi Hayes | Sep 4, 2009 6:48:50 PM

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