December 13, 2019
Life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) is a growing concern in this country. According to the Sentencing Project, the number of LWOP sentences has quadrupled from about 12,500 in 1992 to more than 53,000 as of 2016.
The expansion of LWOP was the result of the confluence of two very different groups. The right-wing - tough-on-crime - hardliners who, beginning in the mid-1980s, declared war on drugs and violent crime and adopted harsher, mandatory sentences, including LWOP.
The second group includes the death penalty abolitionists, left leaning progressives, who adopted LWOP sentences as a logical alternative to the death penalty. As the death penalty wanes - only 22 executions expected in 2019, the fewest since 1991 - those opposed to the death penalty have now set their sights on LWOP.
The cost and morality of locking-up - forever - a wide swath of offenders has come into question.
A number of states are reviewing offenses that are subject to LWOP. In Pennsylvania, for instance, an individual convicted of driving the get-away car in a robbery, that ended in murder could be sentenced to mandatory LWOP. The driver could have had absolutely no intention of killing anyone, in fact the shop keeper could have killed his unarmed accomplice, and the driver could end up in prison for life.
According to the Baton Rouge Advocate, about 15% of Louisiana’s prison population consists of people serving life without parole, which is the highest percentage among all states. Those numbers are the result of sentencing laws enacted decades ago - including abolishing parole for all life sentences.
State lawmakers in Pennsylvania have moved toward changing their laws in recent months, but the latest proposal stalled in committee and did not come before the legislature for a vote. According to The Advocate, the proposal would allow lifers a chance at parole after serving 35 years on a first-degree murder conviction and 25 years on second-degree murder, which under Pennsylvania law refers exclusively to an unintentional killing during the commission of a felony.
In Massachusetts, there are more than a thousand men and women serving life without the possibility of parole. There is pending legislation that would require the possibility of parole and would allow all inmates currently serving life sentences to have the opportunity for a parole hearing after serving 25 years. Release would not be automatic but the parole board would take at least one look at the possibility of parole.
Former California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that bans sentencing juveniles to life without parole.
The U.S. Supreme Court has chipped away at LWOP parole for juveniles. First, the high court struck down mandatory life without parole for juveniles and later eliminated life without parole for juveniles who committed non-homicide offenses.
The United States is the only country that allows the sentence of life without parole for juveniles. California is one of 20 states and the District of Columbia who have outlawed life without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders. There are another five states that do sentence juveniles to life without parole.
In 2012, there were only five states that banned life without parole for juveniles - the addition of California quadruples that number and shows momentum toward an emerging “national consensus” against sentencing juveniles to die in prison. This theory of a national consensus and “evolving standards of decency” are the same theories that resulted in the Supreme Court striking down the death penalty for juveniles.
Quinn Cozzens, staff attorney for the Abolitionist Law Center told The Advocate, “Mandatory life without parole reflects a judgement that somebody is irredeemable, essentially social refuse - something to be kept out of sight and out of mind.”
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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