Sentencing Project Examines Life Sentences

by TChris

A new report (pdf) by the Sentencing Project (summarized here) reveals a shocking rise in the number of inmates serving life sentences -- an increase that wasn't justified by rising crime rates, or by any other justification beyond the "get tough on crime" mindset that has gripped politicians for more than two decades.

The number of convicted felons serving some kind of life sentence has rocketed to 127,000 nationwide -- an 83 percent jump since 1992. More than a quarter of them are ineligible for parole.

The explosion in life sentences stems in part from three-strikes laws and their variants.

In California, almost 60 percent of the lifers in a three-strikes conviction are serving the time for a nonviolent offense.

Imposing life sentences on nonviolent offenders is a waste of society's resources, including the inmate's life.

For corrections officials, those that have to cope on a daily basis with housing, feeding, guarding, and providing medical care to the increasing numbers of long-term inmates, the study just brings home the challenges they face in finding a way to pay for it all.

The report suggests a number of reforms, some of which are embraced in a Christian Science Monitor editorial. All are worthwhile. The recommendations include:

  • assuring adequate representation in death penalty trials;
  • restoring appropriate discretion to sentencing judges;
  • reforming (and restoring) parole programs, and preparing inmates for release on parole;
  • early release of seriously ill and elderly prisoners; and
  • exempting juveniles from life sentences.
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