The number of people serving life sentences in America today exceeds the total number of people in prison in 1970, reported The Sentencing Project in a study released in February.
The five-fold growth of life sentences since 1984 is even greater than the dramatic increase of the general prison population over the same period.
California led the nation at the time of the study with almost 41,000 people, about one-third of the state’s incarcerated population, serving life sentences.
Politics have driven the sentencing trend. Sensationalized stories about crime have fueled fear that has been exploited to exaggerate the actual level of crime in communities, the report stated.
“Life sentences are the lifeblood of mass incarceration,” said the report. “…Extreme punishment for punishment’s sake is now a hallmark of the justice system with little evidence that such an approach produces better public safety outcomes.”
The prevalence of life sentencing is rife with problems, noted the study. For example, dozens of empirical studies indicate that the vast majority of people age out of criminal conduct. Yet 30% of those serving life sentences are 55 or older.
Additionally, racial and ethnic disparities are stark, with one-fifth of Black prisoners serving life sentences. People of color make up two-thirds of those sentenced to life.
Better use of resources would be to prevent crime at its source by investment in social programs, the report concluded.
“Public investments for supporting youth, ensuring access to medical and mental health care, expanding living wage employment opportunities and ensuring affordable housing are a better use of public resources than lifelong imprisonment.”
The report’s authors recommend the abolition of life without parole (LWOP) and limiting life sentences to 20 years in almost all cases.
“The elimination of LWOP will recalibrate all sentences underneath it,” suggests the report. Five and 10-year sentences appear mild in contrast to life, distorting public perceptions of these lesser punishments. “…Creation of a more fair and just system depends on ending all extreme penalties.”
Other recommendations include expansion of release opportunities and an orientation toward victim restoration and community involvement in sentencing.
“America suffers from a broken parole system,” said the report, which cited politicization of the parole process and manipulation of the victim’s experience to ensure that prisoners are not released. Instead, the focus should be on the rehabilitation of the incarcerated person and the resources necessary to ensure success upon release.
The report also promotes an emphasis on the restoration of victims. In the present system, very few resources are devoted to the needs of survivors of crime.
“Experts in this space know that we are all safer when we uplift victims, hold everyone accountable…and do so with empathy and compassion; not assume victims or communities are well-served by long-term imprisonment.”
Reliance on life sentences is a development of recent decades. Early American justice emphasized rehabilitation and the return of offenders to society, said the report. Today the emphasis is on the exclusion of the offender.
Like the death penalty, life sentences are shunned by other industrialized nations. The report cites a case decided by the European Court of Human Rights that substantially eliminated life without parole sentences in member nations.
The decision reflects the principle that prisoners should have the “right to hope,” and provides that rehabilitated individuals who have atoned for their crimes must be evaluated for potential release.
The report concludes that “[i]n an evolved criminal legal system, far fewer people would be in prison, and those who were imprisoned would not stay nearly as long as they currently do. When incarceration is required, the experience should be devoted to preparation for release…This is the successful approach used by many other countries.”