I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
U.S. Incarceration Rate
The United States incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country. One in seven inmates is serving a life sentence—again, a higher percentage than any other country. Advocates for prison reform say that level of punishment is much too high, while the feeling among the general public is that harsh sentences for career criminals and murderers are fine.
United States Incarcerations
America imprisons people at a rate of 664 per 100,000 of population. Its neighbor to the north, Canada, has a rate of 104 per 100,000. In Norway it's just 54 per 100,000.
Handing out life sentences is just as disproportionate with its peers; the rate in the United States is 50 per 100,000 people. That's roughly the same incarceration rate for all crimes in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.
The Sentencing Project reports that “Nearly five times the number of people are now serving life sentences in the United States as were in 1984 . . .” Many of these are not vicious killers; nearly 4,000 U.S. inmates serving life sentences have been convicted of drug-related crimes.
The burden of life sentences falls far more heavily on Black Americans who make up two thirds of the convicts receiving such a punishment. Hispanic Americans are also given life sentences (16 percent of lifer inmates) out of balance to their numbers in society.
Among women in prison, one in 15 is serving a life sentence.
America's increasing fondness for putting people behind bars began in the 1970s when the total prison population was about 200,000—to repeat, the total U.S. prison population was around 200,000.
In 2021, 203,865 people were serving life sentences in American prisons out of a total prison population of well in excess of two million.
“The increase in life imprisonment and the growing extremity of our criminal legal system was largely driven by policies enacted in response to public fears about crime, often rooted in sensationalized media stories rather than the actual prevalence of violent crime in most communities.”
— The Sentencing Project
Types of Life Sentences
Life without parole (LWOP) is just that. Once the prison door closes on the inmate it will only open again for him or her to leave in a body bag. Virtual life has the same long-term outcome; it refers to a sentence that is so long that the inmate will die before their parole eligibility arrives.
In Canada, first-degree murder gets the offender a “life sentence” of 25 years before they can apply for parole. If a board of examiners deems the inmate a continuing risk, parole is denied.
In the United Kingdom, life sentences usually mean the offender can expect to serve a minimum of 15 years. However, in particularly egregious cases a judge may issue a “whole life order,” which means what it suggests. Most other European countries have similar rules with varying times for parole application to be reviewed.
The Netherlands is an outlier in Europe in that a life sentence means the inmate will likely never be released.
In 1884, Portugal abolished life sentences; others such as Norway, Mexico, Serbia, and a few more have done the same. This does not mean that people who commit vile crimes get out of prison. Take the case of Anders Breivik who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011. He received the maximum sentence of 21 years but he will never get out of prison if he is still considered a risk to re-offend.
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Reasons for Life Sentences
As with all activities within the criminal justice system, there are several reasons for handing out sentences—deterrence, rehabilitation, punishment, and protection.
The crime trade is heavily dominated by men under the age of 30. Writing for The New York Times, Dana Goldstein notes:
“Homicide and drug-arrest rates peak at age 19, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, while arrest rates for forcible rape peak at 18 . . . For most of the crimes the FBI tracks, more than half of all offenders will be arrested by the time they are 30.”
In addition, neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky says: “The greatest crime-fighting event on Earth is the 30th birthday.”
The reason for crime being an activity of the young is that their brains have not fully matured. They cannot properly perform a risk/benefit analysis and they have not learned to fully control their impulsivity.
Other factors that lead to criminal activity are mental health issues (found among 60 percent of inmates), and substance abuse disorders (appearing in 80 percent of prisoners).
The people at The Sentencing Project say there are more than 11,000 people serving life sentences for crimes they committed before they were 18 years old. Prison reformers question the advisability of making those people spend the rest of their lives behind bars for crimes they pulled off before their brains had fully matured.
The concept of life in prison is extremely unlikely to deter a 20-year-old male stoked on drugs.
Since the tough-on-crime era began, sentences have become longer. Intuitively, you would think harsher punishments deter crime. But, criminologist Dr. William R. Kelly writes that “The scientific consensus is that between 10 percent and 15 percent of the crime decline in the U.S. is attributable to punishment policy.”
Albert Pierrepoint was Britain's official executioner from 1932 to 1956. In that job he put about 450 people to death. He did not agree that the possibility of being hanged stopped anyone from committing murder. He wrote that capital punishment “is said to be a deterrent. I cannot agree . . . I do not now believe that any of the hundreds of executions I have carried out has in any way acted as a deterrent against future murder. Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.”
Is it Punishment or Revenge?
There are a few saintly people who can set aside their rage and need for revenge against someone who has dealt viciously with a family member; most of us can't. We want revenge and we want it big. That's why we have a justice system. It acts on behalf of the aggrieved party so that people don't exact retribution on their own. That would be mayhem.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant described what is called lex talionis. In the 18th century, he wrote:
“If . . . he has committed murder he must die. Here there is no substitute that will satisfy justice. There is no similarity between life, however wretched it may be, and death, hence no likeness between the crime and the retribution unless death is judicially carried out upon the wrongdoer . . .”
In this statement, Kant built the foundation of what is called retributivism, “because it characterizes punishment as deserved retribution for a moral wrong. According to retributivists, those who break the law commit a moral wrong. And those who commit moral wrongs deserve to suffer” (Guus Duindam, University of Michigan).
As a society, we accept the morality of punishing those who break the law that serves to protect us. What is in question is proportionality.
In most developed countries, with the United States and Japan being notable exceptions, the death penalty has been abolished as an affront to morality. The argument is that if killing a person is a heinous crime, then killing the killer must be judged by the same standard. We have ditched the biblical injunction to remove an “eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth.”
In some cultures, the penalty for theft is the cutting off of the thief's hand. In Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan that is seen as suitably proportional to the crime; in the Western world it is not.
The Life Sentence
That brings us to the question of whether or not a life sentence is proportional. If all people are to be treated equally under the law as stated by the U.S. Constitution, how is it that some Americans do not receive fair treatment? As we've shown above, African Americans are disproportionately represented among those serving life sentences.
Here's what philosophy professor Judith Lichtenberg writes:
“Black people are treated differently than whites ‘at every stage of the criminal justice system’, as the American Civil Liberties Union put it in 2014. That includes the death penalty and life sentences. One reason is racial bias, implicit and explicit. Another is that people of colour tend to be poorer, and poorer people are more likely to commit crimes than rich ones; they are also less likely to receive adequate legal representation.”
The lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key people make the point that violent offenders must be permanently incarcerated so as to protect the public. The week of this writing two names stand out—Cleotha Abston and Myles Sanderson—and speak to that argument.
Cleotha Abston is a man with a long criminal record involving aggravated assault and kidnapping. He was released from prison after serving 20 years. Now he is charged with abducting, raping, and murdering Eliza Fletcher in Memphis Tennessee.
Likewise, Myles Sanderson had a long history of violent crimes (59 convictions) and was on parole when he allegedly stabbed 11 people to death in Saskatchewan, Canada. He died shortly after his arrest.
The fact that both these very violent men had been released from prison is the strongest argument in favour of life sentences for violent criminals. Perhaps, say prison reformers, life sentences should be reserved for only those who are the most vicious wrongdoers.
- Ariel Castro committed such horrific crimes that Judge Michael Russo wanted to make sure he was never going to be a menace to society again. In August 2013, he sentenced Castro to life imprisonment without parole plus 1,000 years. A month later Castro killed himself in prison.
- In 1911, 17-year-old Paul Geidel Jr. was sentenced to prison for second-degree murder. He was released on parole in May 1980 having served the longest prison sentence in U.S. history of 68 years and 296 days. He died in 1987 at the age of 93.
- “States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2021.” Emily Widra and Tiana Herring, Prison Policy Initiative, September 2021.
- “No End in Sight.” The Sentencing Project, 2021.
- “Fact or Fiction: Not all 'Life Sentences' around the World Are Actually for Life.” The Reeves Law Group, undated.
- “Too Old to Commit Crime?” Dana Goldstein, New York Times, March 22, 2015.
- “Why Punishment Doesn't Reduce Crime.” William R. Kelly, Psychology Today, April 25, 2018.
- “How Can Punishment Be Justified? On Kant’s Retributivism.” Guus Duindam, Oklahoma State University, undated.
- “Abolish Life Sentences.” Judith Lichtenberg, Aeon Magazine, August 12, 2022.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2022 Rupert Taylor