If you’re free, if you’re not locked behind bars (and I do realize that this is true of a smaller percentage of people in the so-called Land of the Free than anywhere else on earth), be grateful. One thing you can do is get your hands on important new books. I recommend this one: The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences by Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis, Featuring Six Portraits of Lifers.
This book does include powerful portraits of people sentenced to life in prison. It also includes a straightforward case for abolishing life sentences and creating a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. Like the death sentence, the life sentence is a rare and dying form of barbarism in the world. Unlike the death sentence, it is not fading away in the United States, where over 200,000 people are “serving” life sentences or “virtual life sentences” of 50 years or more. In a survey of 114 countries, those sentenced to life in prison in the United States outnumbered those in the other 113 countries combined. They also outnumber what the entire U.S. prison population was in 1972. One partial cause of this is the uniquely U.S. treatment of past crimes as highly determining sentences for new crimes.
Of those sentenced to “life,” a quarter are ineligible for any parole, and three-quarters are unlikely to get any. As with the sentence of “death,” the “life” sentence varies by state. Over 40,000 of the 200,000 lifers are in California, where they make up over 31% of all prisoners, tying Utah for the top percentage, while in Oregon 737 lifers make up only 5% of prisoners. The U.S. is virtually alone in the world in sentencing juveniles to life in prison. The U.S. is also a leader in failing to provide prisoners with activities, training, education, therapy, etc., and for all such programming, lifers wait at the end of the line. Lifers are also given far fewer rights than those sentenced to death (the death penalty legally requiring greater scrutiny), meaning that a higher percentage of lifers are almost certainly innocent.
Evidence of innocence in the U.S. “justice” system is largely the result of prosecutions during the 1980s, primarily for rape but also for murder, before DNA testing had come into its own, but when evidence (including semen and blood) was sometimes preserved, and when avenues for appeal were in some ways wider before the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (thanks, Joe Biden!) While most prisoners do not have anything that can be tested for DNA to prove their guilt or innocence, non-DNA evidence of innocence is also succeeding in many cases. There have been 2,467 documented exonerations out of that tiny fraction of the overall prison population for which some sort of evidence was available and an appeal was permitted. One study found that 6% of prisoners with DNA evidence to test turned out to be innocent. If you could extrapolate that to the whole population you’d be talking about 136,000 innocent people in U.S. prisons. In the 1990s, a federal inquiry found that DNA testing, then new, was clearing 25% of primary suspects.
Those sentenced to life are unlikely to have the attention and assistance sometimes available to those sentenced to death, but also less likely to have the resources available to other prisoners sentenced to shorter hells. Those sentenced to life are less likely to have been able to afford a good lawyer or even the bail needed to get out of jail and hire a good lawyer pre-trial, and less likely to have someone lining up housing and employment for them to qualify for parole.
Since 1972, 161 death row prisoners have been exonerated, often in large part because they had been served by incompetent lawyers. With all the attention and special requirements surrounding death cases, you can easily imagine the general run of lawyers provided to non-wealthy defendants facing life. The racist imbalance through all stages of policing, indicting, convicting, and sentencing has resulted in two-thirds of lifers being people of color.
Democratic candidates for president say they oppose the death penalty. They aren’t asked about life in prison. Opponents of the death penalty may believe that one must have life in prison in order to accommodate the vicious sadists whom you are denying the right to impose the death penalty. An alternative view is that you must get rid of the vicious sadism in order to achieve a sensible and effective justice system. Taking away the threat of the death penalty will take away a lot of horrible plea bargains, including by the innocent. Taking away the life penalty will proportionately reduce all sentences. That taking such steps, and investing instead in reducing the causes of crimes, will in fact lead to fewer crimes is strongly suggested by the successful testing of such an approach by virtually every other wealthy nation on earth.
The Meaning of Life reviews sentencing policies in a number of nations, and how they have been created. The chief difference seems to be that they have been created by professionals and social scientists trying to maximize positive outcomes, rather than by politicians operating in a culture fueled by mass media aimed at demanding rage and vengeance.
“The determination of sentence length,” Mauer and Nellis write of U.S. policies, “is hardly an outgrowth of a rational scientific process. If it were, then policymakers would be consulting research findings on issues such as the relationship between time served in prison and recidivism, whether prisons are ‘criminogenic’ and make individuals more likely to offend or whether people are more likely to desist from crime after going to prison versus being sentenced to community supervision. However, this is rarely the case. Instead, political calls for addressing ‘the crime of the month,’ often triggered by a high-profile crime, not surprisingly produce bizarre outcomes. Widespread three-strikes policies relied on the rules of baseball instead of criminological research.”
There has never, ever been the slightest mystery about the widely known fact that a society could put more into protecting the quality of the lives of children and young people and end up with less crime than mass incarceration can achieve. Even slightly rational gun laws would do the trick. But it goes beyond that. Among lifers, 79% witnessed violence in their homes as children, and more than half witnessed weekly violence in their neighborhoods.
Life sentences are costly in every sense, and counterproductive. They skew the whole prison system toward inhumane sentences. And they make undoing mass incarceration impossible. The evidence that they deter anything criminal is exactly as strong as the evidence that tearing up agreements Iran is complying with and threatening to bomb Iran deters Iran from something criminal. This has been understood for centuries, at least since Cesare Beccaria. To actually get tough on crime, one would invest in housing, education, healthcare, clean energy, parks, and transportation.
The perverse idea that elderly lifers will get better healthcare in prison is countered by the horrendous healthcare they get in prison and the moral imperative, and economic benefit, of providing healthcare as a right to everyone.
The Meaning of Life proposes a 20-year cap on sentences, going forward and applied retroactively. Lifers are no more likely to repeat crimes than other prisoners. The elderly have largely “aged out” of criminal activities. Individuals deemed to actually be threats to public safety can be placed in civil confinement. With a maximum sentence of 20 years, lesser sentences would need to be reduced proportionally. Some specific steps along the way: eliminate life without parole, expedite parole eligibility, expand prison programming, depoliticize and professionalize the parole process, establish a presumption of parole, expand compassionate release, and create a culture that is not afraid to be kind or to recognize the complexity of good and bad in all of us.