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October 21, 2011

Noting the impact of life sentences on efforts to cut prison costs

USA Today has this little piece, headlined "Growing prison populations hinder budget cuts," which details how the massive increase in offenders serving life sentences in recent years adds an extra challenge for those states now eager to reduce prison populations and associated costs.  Here are excerpts:

The rising number of prisoners serving costly life terms across the country is complicating state officials' efforts to make dramatic cuts to large prison budgets, lawmakers and criminal justice officials said.

From 1984 to 2008, the number of offenders serving life terms quadrupled, from 34,000 to roughly 140,000, according to the most recent count by The Sentencing Project, which advocates alternatives to incarceration.  

One of the fastest-growing subgroups are inmates serving life without the possibility of parole.  Those numbers have jumped from 12,453 in 1992 to 41,095 in 2008 and represent the most costly inmates to house as the aging inmates require increased medical care....

In Texas, the second-largest state prison system in the country, with 156,000 inmates, the number of offenders serving life without parole has been increasing since the sentence was adopted by the state Legislature in 2005, from 47 in 2007 to 391 this year.  The number of Texas prisoners serving life with the possibility of parole — 8,665 — has increased in four of the past five years....

In California, the country's largest prison system with 164,000 inmates, the number of prisoners serving life terms has been steadily increasing, even as the state faces a federal court mandate to reduce the prison population by 30,000 by 2013.  More than 20% of the state's inmates are serving life terms or equivalent sentences.

Joseph Cassilly, a past president of the National District Attorneys Association, said there is concern that increasing budget pressures on state governments could drive officials to consider paroles for lifers in an attempt to reduce costs.   "How do you explain that to a victim of a crime or a surviving family member who thought life in prison really meant life in prison?" Cassilly said.

October 21, 2011 at 08:52 AM | Permalink


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First we were told that we should eliminate the DP because we'd have life without parole, which would keep us just as safe.

Now we're told that the "without parole" part costs, you know, too much.

So next we'll be told.........ummmm, we're going to have to do some paroles, but don't worry, it will only be for "low level killers."

Then we'll be told that, oooooops, the budget situation is worse than we thought, so we're going to have to make parole available to everyone, starting next week.

The whole thing will work out to be a scam. Not that this should surprise anyone, since it was designed to be a scam from the getgo.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 21, 2011 9:01:35 AM


I understand that the death penalty and homicide cases are part of your area of expertise. But I think if you actually look at the data, a large proportion, if not a majority of life sentences in the US are for non-capital/non-homicide crimes like aggravated burglary, armed robbery, drug offenses, three strikes, etc. (I'd expect this to certainly be true if you include all life sentences. I'm not sure what the proportion would be if you restrict it to only LWOP, but given states like Florida that have abolished parole and authorize life sentences for a broad swath of crimes, and given that those crimes are, thankfully, much more common than homicide, I wouldn't be surprised if it's a majority of LWOP sentences too.)

It's not that those other, non-capital/non-homicide crimes aren't serious, but given that many if not most of these folks never could have been subjected to the DP, I'm just not sure that the long-running debate within the death penalty world over the availability of LWOP sentences is particularly salient to the issues discussed in the USA today piece.

And to the degree it is salient, it may actually be that the advocacy of LWOP for DP purposes served to make it more widely available for non-capital as well as capital crimes, in turn meaning that a lot of folks for whom the DP never was and never could have been a possibility nevertheless have the DP-policy community to thank for their LWOP sentences...

Posted by: Anon | Oct 21, 2011 2:27:30 PM

I agree with Bill. We should take all the lifers and execute them asap.

Posted by: Bubba from Texas | Oct 21, 2011 2:38:58 PM

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