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November 7, 2019

"Taking a second look at life imprisonment"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Boston Globe commentary authored by Nancy Gertner and Marc Mauer. Here are excerpts:

While there has been a great deal of attention in recent years to the impact of the drug war on growing prison populations, in fact, the main drivers of the prison system now are excessive sentences for violent offenses.

The statistics are troubling.  There are as many individuals [in Massachusetts] serving life sentences as the entire state prison population in 1970, and more than half are black or Latino. Of the 2,000 lifers in the state, about half are not eligible for parole.  Barring executive clemency, they will die in prison after spending decades behind bars.

Since 90 percent of lifers nationally have been convicted of serious violent crimes, supporters of lifelong incarceration argue that incapacitating such people is an effective crime-control mechanism.  In fact, it is the opposite: It is counterproductive for public safety.

Criminologists know that individuals “age out” of crime.  Any parent of a teenager understands that misbehavior, often serious, is all too common at this stage.  FBI arrest data show that the rate of arrest for teenage boys rises sharply from the mid-teen years through the early 20s but then declines significantly. Arrests for robbery, for example, peak at age 19 but decline by more than half by age 30 and by three-quarters by age 40. The same is true for other violent crimes.

The reason is clear.  As teenage boys enter their 20s, they lose their impulsivity, get jobs, find life partners, form families, and generally take on adult roles.  Violent behavior becomes less attractive.

For public safety purposes incarcerating people past age 40 produces diminishing returns for crime control; less and less crime is prevented by incapacitation each year.  This impact is magnified by resource tradeoffs.  National estimates for the cost of incarcerating an elderly person are at least $60,000 a year, in large part due to the need for health care.  With finite public safety resources, these costs are not available to invest in family and community support for the new cohort of teenagers, for whom proactive initiatives could lower the risk of antisocial behavior.

Legislation introduced by Representative Jay Livingstone of Boston and Senator Joe Boncore of Winthrop, along with 34 cosponsors, would help to ameliorate this problem in Massachusetts.  Under the bill’s “second look” provision, individuals serving life without parole would be eligible for a parole review after serving 25 years....

Recently, there has been a bipartisan critique of the effects of mass incarceration, particularly on low-income communities of color.  State policy makers across the country are exploring ways to reduce excessive prison populations without adverse effects on public safety.  The proposed “second look” provision offers one significant alternative.  It should be passed.

November 7, 2019 at 01:26 PM | Permalink

Comments

This proposal is compelling but will require an extensive resource shift in order to implement the second look provision properly. Currently written, the bill focuses on the numbers and provides what the sentences should be for crimes instead of a life sentence. The bill does not contain any procedure or list of considerations that should be taken into account after the individual has served the termed sentence to help the parole board determine whether they should be released. We have spoken frequently in class about the difficulties in obtaining parole. It seems that if the legislature is going to allow more inmates to be considered for parole, the legislature should provide the board with greater guidelines for granting parole.

Posted by: Kate Toth | Nov 11, 2019 11:16:29 AM

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