New York Times 9/12/11
Authored by Esther Brown
Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty
THE MISUSE OF LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE
“The Supreme Court ruled last year that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile to life without parole when the crime is short of homicide. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that life without parole shares “some characteristics with death sentences that are shared by no other sentences” in altering “the offender’s life by a forfeiture that is irrevocable.”
The sentence is no less severe when applied to adults. Yet life without parole, which exists in all states (Alaska’s version is a 99-year sentence), is routinely used, including in cases where the death penalty is not in play and where even an ordinary life sentence might be too harsh. From 1992 to 2008, the number in prison for life without parole tripled from 12,453 to 41,095, even though violent crime declined sharply all over the country during that period. That increase is also much greater than the percentage rise in offenders serving life sentences.
The American Law Institute, a group composed of judges, lawyers and legal scholars, has wisely called for restricting the use of the penalty to cases “when this sanction is the sole alternative to a death sentence.”
In capital cases, life without parole is a sound option. Public support for the death penalty, a barbarity that should be abolished in this country, plummets when life without parole is an alternative. In many states, juries are instructed that it is an option. But the use of the sentence has gone far beyond death penalty cases, even as violent crime rates have declined.
In the last decade in Georgia, one of the few states with good data on the sentence, about 60 percent of offenders sentenced to life without parole were convicted of murder. The other 40 percent were convicted of kidnapping, armed robbery, sex crimes, drug crimes and other crimes including shoplifting. Nationwide, the racial disparity in the penalty is stark. Blacks make up 56.4 percent of those serving life without parole, though they are 37.5 percent of prisoners in all state prisons.
The overuse of the sentence reflects this excessively punitive era. But as the institute’s report explains, an “ordinary” life sentence is “a punishment of tremendous magnitude” whose “true gravity should not be undervalued.” In the past 20 years, the average life term served has grown from 21 years to 29 years before parole.
Interestingly, even the institute’s approach to sentencing reflects the times. In 1962, when it last revised its Model Penal Code on sentencing, which is a blueprint for states to follow in shaping their laws, the group called for prisoners sentenced to life to be considered for parole after 1 to 10 years. Now the group calls for them to be reviewed by a judge within 15 years, with the expectation that many will “never regain their freedom.”
Still, the group’s view about the proper relationship between crime and punishment is dispassionate and correct. A fair-minded society should revisit life sentences and decide whether an offender deserves to remain in prison or be released on parole. And a fair-minded society should not sentence anyone to life without parole except as an alternative to the death penalty. ”