Convicts sometimes avoid the death penalty by receiving a sentence of life without parole. But such a seemingly humane sentence carries its own ethical and social implications — perhaps especially when imposed on juveniles.
Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun and advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, was in town last month to give the keynote address at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minneapolis.
She argues that a sentence of life without parole is akin to a sentence of death.
"As a society we have to examine our belief that severe punishment is the way to restore order," she told The Sun magazine. "The main objective of prisons is to keep society safe, not to cause prisoners pain simply because they caused others pain. People who have committed violent crimes need to be imprisoned to keep the public safe, but we must also strive for rehabilitation. We know that prisoners who get an education tend not to reoffend, but we've cut most educational programs from prisons — really, any program that might restore humanity to the prisoners. Restorative justice would improve our society instead of simply throwing people away."
Josh Bowers, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, says it is tough for juries even to think beyond the harshest punishments because of mandatory minimums:
Mandatory life without parole is part of a larger push in criminal law in the direction of mandatory minimums. Those who don't like discretion or who worry about discretion tend to like mandatory minimums because they think that mandatory minimums get past the problem with discretion. I don't think that's so. They force discretion away from certain criminal justice actors, judges and juries, and in the direction of the professional prosecutor...
A small thing we could do, which would involve next to no additional resources at all, is to simply tell a capital sentencing jury your choice is not between death and life without parole. Your choices are death, life without parole or some other option, be it life or a long term of years or whatever the statute prescribes. That's a solution that could come from legislative enactment.
On The Daily Circuit, we examine the issue of life without parole, especially in the case of murderers. Has public opinion toward this issue and the death penalty changed?
LEARN MORE ABOUT LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE:
• Should Teen Murderers Receive Life Without Parole?
Minors are capable of horrific acts, but in a pair of upcoming cases, the Supreme Court will decide if they are beyond help. (The Atlantic)
• Life Without Parole: Four Inmates' Stories
Of the 140,000 prisoners serving life sentences in the United States, about 41,000 have no chance at parole, a result of laws that eliminated parole in the federal system and for many state prisoners. (New York Times)
• Over 3,000 US prisoners serving life without parole for non-violent crimes
Timothy Jackson, 53, is one of 3,281 prisoners in America serving life sentences with no chance of parole for non-violent crimes. Some, like him, were given the most extreme punishment short of execution for shoplifting; one was condemned to die in prison for siphoning petrol from a truck; another for stealing tools from a tool shed; yet another for attempting to cash a stolen cheque. (The Guardian)