On Feb. 23, for the first time since 2010, three Americans were scheduled for execution on the same day. Ultimately, one man received a last-minute death row commutation, and the botched, painful execution of another was halted and postponed. This drew the spectacle of the death penalty back into the spotlight, but the United States has moved away from the punishment, with just 39 people sentenced to death in 2017, down from 315 in 1996. Another sentence has silently taken its place: life imprisonment without parole.
Often regarded as a humane alternative to the death penalty, sentences of life without parole (also known as LWOP) have essentially the same result: slow aging behind bars and death in prison. The Sentencing Project reported in 2017 that about 53,000 Americans are serving this hopeless sentence which Pope Francis has called “a death penalty in disguise”—a number that has quadrupled since 1992.
Giving an imprisoned person the possibility of parole does not guarantee eventual freedom, but it does offer a glimmer of hope for redemption. Denying this hope is considered inhuman and degrading treatment by the European Court of Human Rights.
About 53,000 Americans are serving this hopeless sentence that Pope Francis has called “a death penalty in disguise.”
In the United States, LWOP sentencing is biased and arbitrary. About 56 percent of those with the sentence are black, an even greater overrepresentation than the number of black prisoners on death row. And are people inherently more dangerous in California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the five states responsible for 58 percent of life without parole sentences?
A study based on past exonerations, published by the National Academy of Sciences, estimates that 4 percent of people on death row were wrongfully convicted. If that percentage holds for those with LWOP sentences, 2,000 people are dying in prison for crimes they did not commit. Innocent people serving life without parole are unlikely to have their convictions overturned, as they lack the state-funded legal support and unlimited appeals offered to those on death row.
When we permanently remove 53,000 people from society, countless others are left behind. Children, spouses, parents and loved ones face lifelong stress, trauma and financial strain as they work to maintain relationships that will never be the same again. People serving L.W.O.P sentences miss their children’s weddings and their parents’ funerals, and children grow up knowing they will never see their parent outside a prison visiting room.
Until recently, even children were routinely locked up for life. But in 2012 the Supreme Court ruled that only “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption” may receive the sentence. The U.S. Catholic bishops have called for an absolute ban on life sentences without parole for juveniles.
Banning the sentence for children is not enough. Americans and lawmakers across the political spectrum support reducing our prison populations by shortening sentences for nonviolent offenses. But just over half the people in state prisons are there for violent crimes. Rethinking their sentences is more difficult, but it is just as necessary for reform.
Public safety is important to consider, but so is the generational pain and damage caused by incarceration.
Incarceration serves four purposes: deterrence, incapacitation, retribution and rehabilitation. Life without parole is not necessary to serve any of these.
First, while potential criminals may be deterred by the threat of prison, studies show that extreme sentences like life without parole do little to prevent additional crime.
Prison sentences do incapacitate by physically removing potentially dangerous people from the community, but in this realm, too, life without parole is usually excessive. Research shows that even those who commit violent crimes mature out of lawbreaking by middle age, yet we bury people in prisons as they grow old, sick and frail. Public safety is important to consider, but so is the generational pain and damage caused by incarceration. In the words of Pope Francis, “To cage people…for the mere fact that if he is inside we are safe, this serves nothing. It does not help us.”
As for retribution, that is a complicated factor. Violent crimes tear lives apart, and the desire for punishment is understandable. The pain of victims should never be dismissed or overlooked, and our criminal justice system should allow more opportunities for healing as a community. But as Catholics, we are called to show mercy.
That leaves rehabilitation. The U.S. Catholic bishops wrote in 2000 that “Abandoning the parole system, as some states have done…turns prisons into warehouses where inmates grow old, without hope, their lives wasted.” And as Pope Francis said before the U.S. Congress in 2015, “A just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”
For those opposed to the death penalty, a sentence of any length may sound like a better alternative. But locking people away and throwing away the key is not a moral solution.