Life-without-parole sentences are steadily replacing the death penalty across the United States, reported The Marshall Project. Almost 56,000 people nationwide are now serving sentences that will keep them locked up until they die, an increase of 66% since 2003, according to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for shorter prison terms.
By comparison, only 2,500 people nationally are on death row according to the Death Penalty Information Center; the number of new death sentences dwindled to 18 last year, as prosecutors increasingly seek life instead. Executions are less popular with Americans than they used to be, according to Gallup, and are astronomically expensive to taxpayers. In Dallas, the district attorney’s office says it asks for capital punishment only for egregious crimes where defendants present a continuing threat to society.
But as life without parole displaces capital punishment, the country’s patchwork system of public defense hasn’t kept up. Only 11 states report having minimum qualifications for lawyers who represent impoverished people facing a lifetime behind bars, according to the nonprofit Sixth Amendment Center. In Texas, there’s a continuing dispute over whether the standards for death penalty defense apply if prosecutors seek life without parole instead.
Most states have no rules, The Marshall Project and The Dallas Morning News found. Someone just out of law school could handle a life-without-parole case in Illinois or Nebraska. In California, where a third of the prison population is serving some form of life sentence, minimum qualifications apply only in death penalty cases; the state hasn’t executed anyone since 2006.
Other states have minimal standards. South Carolina requires just three years of experience in criminal law; Arkansas specifies that lawyers should have handled at least one homicide trial.
When it comes to life without parole, “the idea that you would treat these cases like you would treat other felonies is somewhat incomprehensible to me,” said Pamela Metzger, the director of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “The sentencing stakes are so high and often irreversible.” People facing life have far fewer chances to appeal than those facing capital punishment, and their cases draw far less scrutiny, she said.
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