Convener’s Corner | February 6, 2017
Taifa pensive

Feb. 6, 2017

Criminal Justice Reform Must Include Life Without Parole Sentences

The recently released report from The Sentencing Project, “Delaying a Second Chance: The Declining Prospects for Parole on Life Sentences,” stresses that “thus far, criminal justice reform has largely excluded people in prison with life sentences. This growing “lifer” population both illustrates and contributes to the persistence of mass incarceration.”

The report reveals that continued incarceration of those who have “aged out” of crime-prone years is not only ineffective in promoting public safety, it is also costly, impeding public investments in preventive and rehabilitative programs. To increase the opportunity for release from prison for parole-eligible lifers, the report recommends 1) that parole eligibility be expedited; 2) that parole boards be depoliticized and professionalized; 3) that there be a presumption of release; and 4) that the integrity of parole hearings be improved.

Although the Sentencing Project’s report focuses on state systems where parole is still in effect, in the federal system a life sentence is, in actuality, a death sentence as parole was abolished in 1984. As such, there are extremely limited options for federal sentence review, slashing opportunities for incarcerated individuals to demonstrate reform. Because there is no federal parole, it is critical that there be viable mechanisms by which lengthy sentences can be systematically reviewed.

For federal prisoners whose sentences are not parole eligible, a judicial “Second Look” process should be implemented, which would permit a judicial panel or other judicial decision-maker to review an individual’s sentence in light of current circumstances. Such a process would ensure that sentences that may have seemed appropriate at the time of conviction actually remain the appropriate punishment throughout the sentence. The 2016 bipartisan Charles Colson Task Force Report on Federal Corrections recommended implementation of such a process.

Mass incarceration has proliferated because we as a nation have numbed ourselves into accepting harsh punishments with lengthy sentences, including life without parole. If we are to stunt the spiraling growth of the prison population and tackle rampant racism in our system of punishment, then we must express outrage and act to end such unconscionably lengthy sentences and punishments that end with death in prison. Indeed, regardless of whether we are motivated by fiscal, religious, big government, or racial concerns, such punishments should not only offend society’s sense of decency, but should be unacceptable to our own personal consciences as well.

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