Real prison reform must take long look at life sentences

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In Marc Schindler and Jason Ziedenberg’s Sept. 12 piece  “Violent crime shouldn’t be left out of prison reform debate,” the authors note an important trend occurring among policymakers concerning how to reduce our nation’s record prison population. While there is growing support for de-carceration goals, proposals for sentencing reforms for low-level offenses are generally paired with the preservation of extreme penalties for serious and violent crimes. This strategy has been pursued without consideration of its impact on the exact problem that policymakers are attempting to fix: a bloated prison population that far surpasses that of any other country in the world.

People with violent crimes in their past—even their distant past—do not qualify for inclusion in most “comprehensive” reform discussions or proposed statutes that attempt to ease prison populations because of the serious natures of their crimes. In a 2013 analysis by The Sentencing Project, we concluded that it would take at least 88 years at the current pace of criminal justice reform to bring the prison population back to its 1980 level. A substantial reason for the slow pace of change is the pointed exclusion of individuals convicted of violent crimes, comprising half of state prisoners.

One particular class of prisoner that has been eliminated from reform conversations is lifers, that is, those facing the rest of their life in prison for a crime that occurred as many as 50 years earlier. Despite a slowing of prison population growth over the last several years, and even declines in a handful of states, the rise in life-sentenced inmates has continued. And it is occurring despite a decline in violent crimes over the same period. Nationally, one in nine prisoners is serving a life sentence, totaling out to more than 159,000 people. Two-thirds are people of color. The majority of lifers have been convicted of serious, violent offenses, but the length of time before the potential for release is out of step with international and human rights norms and also with the latest research on crime.

Most offenders mature out of criminal tendencies by their mid-thirties; incarceration beyond a period of 15 to 20 years, even for a serious crime, produces diminishing returns for public safety. The National Research Council is the latest authority to note that long-term sentences, even for violent crimes, serve little purpose other than to reinforce the retributive goal of corrections.

Many of the prisoners serving life sentences demonstrate considerable personal transformation, often serving as model inmates and mentors to newly arrived prisoners. Research on those lifers who are fortunate enough to exit prison find remarkably low recidivism rates among them. In 2012, Maryland’s appellate court ruled in Unger v. State that life sentences handed down before 1981 violated due process protections due to misleading jury instructions. As a result more than 100 lifers have been released, and not a single one has been convicted of a new felony. All of this leads to an important question: to what extent are policy makers truly looking out for public safety in current policy proposals that exclude lifers?

Another concern in the current reform debate is that much of it hinges on the belief in second chances.

Therefore, it does not logically follow that redemption should only be offered to some and not others, as it suggests that redemption is about the act but not the actor. It argues that those who make small mistakes – low-level drug offenses, let’s say—are more capable of turning their behavior around than those who make big mistakes – taking a life, for example. But the idea of second chances is inherently designed to focus on the individual—specifically his or her demonstrated capacity for change and ability to contribute to society. When proposals omit certain categories of crimes as not worthy of second chances, the focus unnecessarily shifts to the crime of conviction.


The current climate for criminal justice reform is encouraging, with bipartisan support for long-recommended revisions to sentencing laws at the federal and state level. Whether fueled by fiscal or moral incentives, or both, there is an opportunity to shift the direction of our system so that it is both fair and efficient. At the same time, reforms that are overly restrictive will not get us very far in dismantling the uniquely American structure of mass incarceration.

Nellis is the Senior Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project and the author of a series of analyses on life imprisonment. Follow her on Twitter @love__justice


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