1 in 11 Inmates Are Serving Life Sentences

The Sentencing Project, a national non-profit organization engaged in research and advocacy on criminal justice policy issues, has issued a 48-page, detailed report titled: No Exit/The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America. Following are three selected key excerpts from this document, which was written by Ashley Nellis and Ryan S. King (July 2009).

The report’s Introductory paragraphs follow:

“There are more than 2.3 million people incarcerated in prisons or jails throughout the United States. This figure that has been growing steadily since 1972 and represents a 600% increase over this period. The United States has achieved the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of incarceration in the world by enacting three decades of “tough on crime” policies that have made little impact on crime but have had profound consequences for American society.

These policies have been wide-ranging and include such features as an increased emphasis on drug enforcement, determinate sentences, and most significantly, a vastly expanded use of imprisonment. Simultaneously, there has been a diminishing of the value placed on the principle of rehabilitation that originally guided the nation’s correctional philosophy.”

The Key Findings of the report follow:

“• 140,610 individuals are serving life sentences, representing one of every 11 people (9.5%) in prison.
• Twenty-nine percent (41,095) of the individuals serving life sentences have no possibility of parole.
• The number of individuals serving life-without-parole sentences increased by 22% from 33,633 to 41,095 between 2003 and 2008. This is nearly four times the rate of growth of the parole-eligible life sentenced population.
• In five states—Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and New York—at least 1 in 6 people in prison are serving a life sentence.
• The highest proportion of life sentences relative to the prison population is in California, where 20% of the prison population is serving a life sentence, up from 18.1% in 2003. Among these 34,164 life sentences, 10.8% are life without parole.
• Racial and ethnic minorities serve a disproportionate share of life sentences. Two-thirds of people with life sentences (66.4%) are nonwhite, reaching as high as 83.7% of the life-sentenced population in the state of New York.
• There are 6,807 juveniles serving life sentences; 1,755, or 25.8%, of whom are serving sentences of life without parole.
• Seventy-seven percent of juveniles sentenced to life are youth of color.
• There are 4,694 women and girls serving life sentences; 28.4% of females sentenced to life do not have the possibility of parole.”

The report’s Recommendations for Reform follow:

Eliminate Sentences of Life without Parole
“Life-without-parole sentences are costly, shortsighted, and ignore the potential for transformative personal growth. The 43 states that have both life and LWOP sentences should amend their statutes to make all life sentences parole-eligible. The six states and the federal system with LWOP-only sentences should replace this structure with parole-eligible terms. An example may come from Canada, where all persons serving life are considered for parole after serving 10 to 25 years. Such a change would not necessarily mean that all parole-eligible persons would be released at some point during their term. In the interest of public safety, many individuals sentenced to life will serve the remainder of their natural lives in prison. However, this reform would provide that a decision on release be made by a professional parole board at the time of eligibility, taking into account a person’s prospects for a successful transition to the community. Such policy changes are gaining traction among key practitioners. In its draft standards, The American Law Institute, a professional body of judges, lawyers, and academics has called for the elimination of life without parole except as an alternative
to the death penalty. And, in June 2009, a federal judge in Pennsylvania reaffirmed a lower-court ruling that eases the clemency request process for Pennsylvania inmates serving life sentences which began before 1997. Before this time, pardon recommendations required a simple majority vote by the state Pardons Board before being passed to the governor for review, but the law changed in late 1997 to require a unanimous vote instead. The present ruling allows inmates sentenced before 1997,
perhaps as many as 3,000, to apply for a pardon under these earlier rules.

Eliminate Juvenile LWOP
As an intermediate step toward a wholesale repeal of LWOP, policymakers should eliminate JLWOP. The United States is the only country in the world that imposes JLWOP sentences, placing it in violation of international law. The committee that oversees the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights notes that sentencing children to life sentences without parole is…not in compliance with Article 24(1) of the Covenant.” And, the Committee Against Torture, which oversees the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, finds that JLWOP “…could constitute cruel, inhuman treatment or degrading treatment or punishment” in violation of the treaty.Many view the elimination of JLWOP as a natural evolution of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roper, in which the death penalty was determined to be unconstitutional for juveniles because of the Court’s admission that juveniles are much more amenable to reform than adults. In Roper, the Court also recognized that there should be different standards for judging culpability for children than for adults; this reasoning applies to JLWOP as well. Efforts are underway in a number of states to eliminate JLWOP because of the growing awareness that this sentence is particularly inappropriate and cruel when applied to young people. In recent years, legislation has been introduced in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Texas and Washington that would allow parole hearings at some point during a juvenile’s sentence. Federal leadership is needed to eliminate JLWOP in the federal system and to serve as an example to states that this sentence type is unacceptable.

Prepare Persons Sentenced to Life for Release From Prison
The emergence of reentry as a criminal justice policy issue in the last decade has largely ignored persons serving a life sentence. Typically, reentry programs are provided to persons within 6 months of their release date and offer transition services in the community upon release. However, for persons serving a life sentence, their release date is not fixed and they are often overlooked as policymakers and correctional administrators consider reentry strategies. Additionally, persons serving a life sentence
have unique reentry needs based upon the long duration of their prison term.The failure to design reentry strategies for persons serving a life sentence neglects 1 in 11 persons in prison by denying them the opportunity to participate in valuable programming. Reentry and reintegration principles must be extended to persons serving a life sentence. Correctional programs can contribute to a successful release and persons serving life should be encouraged to access the types of services that will help them transform their lives and improve their presentation before the parole board. One model is the Lifeline program, first enacted in Canada and being considered in Colorado. In Lifeline, persons who have successfully reintegrated into society after serving a life sentence serve as mentors to those persons who are going to be released. “In-reach workers” help prepare individuals while they are still in prison for the challenges they will face and assist those who have been released to the community. The program has been in place for more than 15 years in Canada and 8 in 10 persons serving life reported the service to be helpful.

Restore the Role of Parole
In 1967, the President’s Crime Commission recommended that parole boards be staffed by correctional professionals rather than political appointees. However, more than 40 years later, parole boards remain the domain of political appointees and two-thirds of states lack any standardized qualifications for service. This has resulted in a highly politicized process that too often discounts evidence and expert testimony. Parole boards should be staffed with members who have a background in corrections or relevant social services in order to best assess suitability for release. They should also use risk-based
release polices that consider a range of static and dynamic factors including criminal history, offense severity, prison disciplinary record, and program participation while incarcerated.”

To view the entire 48-page report, click on the following link: http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/inc_noexit.pdf

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