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September 15, 2022

US organizations file complaint at United Nations stating LWOP and other extreme prison terms "are cruel in violation of the international prohibition on torture"

As reported in this new Guardian piece, headlined "US civil rights groups file complaint against ‘death by incarceration’ to UN," a coalition of organizations today filed a notable broadside against all extreme prison terms in the US.  Here are the basics:

A coalition of civil and human rights organizations on Thursday filed a complaint urging United Nations special rapporteurs to declare the United States’ longstanding practice of subjecting people to life sentences, including without possible release, “cruel, racially discriminatory” and “an arbitrary deprivation of liberty” that violates incarcerated people’s rights.

They argued that “death by incarceration”— a term describing life sentences without parole coined by [Terrell] Carter and other members of the Right to Redemption Committee, a group of incarcerated people seeking the abolition of the practice — amounted to torture.  In their complaint, the civil rights organizations asked the international watchdogs to pressure the United States, who leads the world in sentencing people to life imprisonment, to abolish the extreme practice altogether.  They proposed instead to impose maximum sentencing laws that would eliminate the practice of “virtual life” sentences — those longer than a person’s remaining years of life expectancy, often more than 50 years....

Dozens of testimonies from incarcerated people sentenced to life detail the horrific toll so-called “death by incarceration” has not just on their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing but also the lasting impact separation has on their family members.  Carlos Ruiz Paz, who is serving a life sentence in California, wrote in a testimonial that a life sentence without parole signaled a person was “irreparably damaged without hope of redemption”, adding: “Extreme sentences affect the kids who grow up without us and the parents that will die without us at their side.”

The complaint noted that the United States’ use of virtual life sentences increased exponentially since the 1970s, particularly after the supreme court abolished the death penalty in 1972, prompting states to strengthen life sentencing laws for offenders.  Even after the supreme court reversed course in 1976, extreme sentencing practices continued.  By the 1980s and 90s, as the federal government incentivized states to impose harsher sentencing practices in an effort to curtail perceived rises in crime, more and more people were imprisoned for longer.

The toll of that suffering has disproportionately upended the lives of Black and brown people who have been subjected to over-policing throughout time, exposing them to the US carceral system and led to escalating mass incarceration.  Organizers argue that that violates international human rights law prohibiting racial discrimination. “This systemic deprivation of resources, including education, healthcare and other social support and services, is coupled with the entry of more police and prisons in these communities and exposure to the criminal legal system,” the complaint noted.

The US is the only country that sentences children under 18 to life without parole, a practice that the United Nations has already singled out. And the US accounted for more than 80% of people worldwide serving life sentences without parole.

The full complaint is available at this link, and it runs 160 pages in total (though 3/4 of the document is comprised of an Appendix with testimonials from persons serving extreme sentences). Here is a paragraph from the complaint's introduction:

The United States’ use of DBI sentences violates a range of international human rights.  First, the disproportionate imposition of DBI sentences on racial minorities, in particular Black and Latinx people, violates the prohibition against racial discrimination.  Second, by arbitrarily and permanently sentencing individuals to prison terms that result in their premature death, DBI sentences violate individuals’ right to life.  Third, as recognized by numerous international human rights bodies, by depriving individuals of their right to hope and to rehabilitation, DBI sentences violate the international prohibition against torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.  The devastating consequences on an individual’s right to family life further exacerbate the cruelty of DBI sentences.  Finally, the failure of DBI sentences to serve any legitimate purpose further demonstrates that such sentences are an impermissibly arbitrary deprivation of liberty.  To comply with international human rights standards, the United States must abolish DBI and restore incarcerated individuals’ right to hope.

September 15, 2022 at 06:03 PM | Permalink

Comments

I remember being on the NYT’s DP message board 20 years ago and told that the DP was unnecessary because we could sentence murderers to LWOP to keep society safe.

I was much younger and naive then, but still knew it was BS. The “slippery slope” stops being a fallacy when you can predict it Every. Single. Time.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Sep 16, 2022 10:05:02 AM

Tarls, it's no so much the slippery slope concept as it is "moving the goal posts." It happens in a lot of policy areas where an idea is presented as a reasonable, moderate change. Once that change is implemented, the next step is presented as a reasonable moderate change. It doesn't take that many small steps until the "mainstream" of debate focuses on ideas that would have been considered extreme just a short while before. I should note that this approach is applied by the extremes of both sides which is how the Free Exercise now protects what was prohibited under the Establishment Clause a mere forty years ago and defense attorneys are now arguing that LWOP for twenty year olds is cruel and unusual punishment.

Posted by: tmm | Sep 16, 2022 2:08:23 PM

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