Life without parole is no moral alternative to the death penalty

(iStock/timharmon)(iStock/timharmon)

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.

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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.

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J Cosgrove
6 months 1 week ago

“To cage people…for the mere fact that if he is inside we are safe, this serves nothing. It does not help us.”

Well this apparently is at odds with statistics. Violent crime is way down since increased sentencing 25 years ago (most lifers have committed violent crimes.) That means a lot of people are alive who would be dead from prevented crimes. It may be hard to pinpoint which violent criminal will be a recidivist but the percentages are high. It is about 80% in the US.

So is the author asking people to be killed, raped and beaten in order to let prisoners go free.

There is no easy answer to this as releasing any criminal in the name of compassion may cause a lot of harm to innocent individuals. This doesn't mean we should not try to evaluate those who may actually contribute to society if they are released.

We should also examine sentencing guidelines to see which crimes have too long incarceration times.

The author receives money from George Soros.

I suggest the author investigate what causes crime and please do not say poverty. A lot of poor people do not commit crime. Look to something else and it might lead you away from taking money from George Soros.

Kevin Murphy
6 months 1 week ago

You can't prove a point by consistently quoting Pope Francis. If he wants to rehabilitate a guy who massacres a movie theatre or a school, he's welcome to take him in at the Vatican.

Tim O'Leary
6 months 1 week ago

It is of course terrible for any innocent person to be wrongly imprisoned, but this cannot be fixed by lighter sentences, only by better judicial review. There are enough repeat murders (mostly back in their own communities) to give us pause. If I were a judge, I would feel awful if my actions led to an unjust imprisonment. But, I would feel even more terrible if I released a person into the community I am charged with protecting, only to have another victim on my conscience. Apart from protecting the public, retribution must be proportional to the crime. Some crimes deserve the death penalty, even if we as a society decide to forego that ultimate punishment as an act of mercy or for other societal reasons. But, are we sure we can protect the innocent by also releasing likely recidivists into society? We have to be very careful that our heart doesn't make us irresponsible.

The experience with child sex abusers might enlighten us in this discussion, especially given the painful experience of Church leaders and other institutions. For a time, it was believed that therapy, time, aging, drugs and psychotherapy could rehabilitate the offender, and thousands were released back into the community, with terrible consequences. Children paid dearly for that lapse in judgment and the Church and the poor are still paying (the latter have had millions siphoned off to pay plaintiffs and mostly lawyers). How many souls have been lost because of this, by those who were permitted to go back into society and damage many more, and by many others who have lost their faith or abandoned the sacraments because of this criminal lapse in judgment? Now, multiply that by adding murderers and violent offenders into the mix.

Mike Theman
6 months 1 week ago

Rather than look at what to do about those convicted of violent crime as if that is a given in our society, why isn't the Church focusing on what it is good at - or at least supposed to be good at - promoting traditional families: married moms and dads raising their offspring? You don't need to do a study to recognize that boys who grow up in cultures where violence of men is the norm are more susceptible to committing violent crimes than in cultures where boys are taught to be hard-working husbands and fathers. Come on, church leaders, stop accepting this messed up culture of ours and get back to basics. Reduce the crimes not the sentences.

J Cosgrove
6 months 1 week ago

America is on record that traditional families are not important. They are big city elites who have bought into an utopian vision of a future and that certain sacrifices must be made in pursuit of this utopia.

If America wanted to connect with real people, they would move to some small area in the center of the country (not a college town) and hire local people and listen to them.

Christopher Lochner
6 months 1 week ago

Watch out about being utopian yourself. ;)) America would never lower itself to consider opposing views, I think. While discussing issues with various Jesuits, they almost always refer back to their perceived intellectual superiority. They already know and they're simply attempting to educate the masses in the form of a correction. Remind you of anyone?

Ellen B
6 months ago

Actually, it is the moral alternative. There are crimes that are so heinous that society must be protected from the person who committed that crime. The people who committed those crimes chose to do so of their own free will. They chose to squander the gift of life of their own free will. Sociopaths who murder time & time again without remorse... a Ted Bundy or a Charles Manson.
I would bet that in the majority of these cases the families are better off separated from family members.. a violent felon is not the happy father or mother that you picture attending a wedding. It was Ted Kaczynski's brother who realized that the Unibomber was his brother.

In the rare case that someone is convicted of life without parole & they are innocent, the possibility exists for them to be found innocent at a later date. With the death penalty, that possibility does not exist.

Mary Therese LEMANEK
6 months ago

LWOP definitely is NOT a moral alternative to the state sanctioned execution and for many many people, serves no helpful purpose. People can and do change and mature, coming to a far better understanding of themselves and the consequences of their actions. Keeping men and women incarcerated for decades deprives them of the opportunity to give back to the community and make use of the insights and skills that they have come to while in prison. The undeserved negative social and financial impact on their families will reverberate for years. To give people the opportunity for release is not equivalent to excusing their crime; rather it allows them to make amends in a way that is far more productive than lingering behind bars. Should every person be released? No. But to cage folks up for no reason other than out of a need for vengeance is hardly justice.

Michael Barberi
6 months ago

Until our rehabilitation services for prisoners can be demonstrated to work, we will never truly resolve our dilemma of balancing justice and mercy.

Keep in mind that our justice system needs reformation as well as sentencing guidelines. Consider that prosecutors that knowingly and deliberately withhold exculpatory evidence and send innocent people to long prison times do not suffer any meaningful consequences even when this is found out. Prosecutors who intentionally withhold exculpatory evidence should be disbarred and law enforcement who do the same should never be able to hold another law enforcement position. I would say that same for law enforcement personnel and attorneys who deliberately lie to a judge. Politicians and the media should also be held to higher standards and subject to consequences when they deliberately misrepresent the complete truth. Unfortunately, we are seeing this play out in our society today.

As for sentencing guidelines, they should be significantly reduced for non-violent crimes. We should also amend the definition of a violent crime. For example, possessing or selling small amounts of marijuana should be a minor criminal offense, subject to fines and not long prison sentences even for repeat offenders. On the other hand, violent criminals who commit rape and murder should be given long prison times but "with the possibility of parole after a certain number of years". However, only after a reform of our prison rehabilitation services are proven to work should parole be granted to the highly violent criminals.

Lastly, at the 50,000 foot level it is easy to write or preach about eliminating 'life without parole for very violent criminals', but highly difficult to preach about an effective solution from ground zero. Unfortunately, this article demonstrates this dilemma.

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