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November 22, 2005


A New York Times Series on Lifers October 2 to October 5, 2005

The New York Times ran a series of four articles that dealt with offenders sentenced to life in American prisons. In the last thirty years, the US has created a booming permanent population of prisoners who will likely die of old age behind bars – forcing some prisons to open new cemeteries. Almost 1 in 10 prisoners in the U.S. (approximately 132,000) is serving a life sentence. This number has almost doubled in the last decade, far outpacing the overall growth in the prison population. A conservative estimate is that it costs $3 billion a year to house America’s lifers.

Facts about Life Sentences

· In much of the world, life without parole is a legal impossibility.

· Of those lifers sentenced between 1988 and 2001, about one third are serving time for sentences other than murder, like rape, kidnapping, armed robbery, assault, extortion, burglary and arson. People convicted of drug trafficking account for 16 percent of all lifers.

· In 1993, 20% of lifers were serving sentences with no chance of parole. In 2004, that number rose to 28%.

· Driven by tougher laws and political pressure on governors and parole boards, thousands of lifers are going into prisons each year, and in many states only a few are ever coming out, even in cases where judges and prosecutors did not intend to put them away forever.

· Life sentences are undeniably tough but please politicians and prosecutors and satisfy opponents of capital punishment.

Life in the 1970’s

· In the 1970’s, a life sentence usually meant serving fewer than 20 years in a prison.

· In Louisiana, life meant roughly 10 years and six months.

Changing the Rules

· Since 1979, all life sentences in Louisiana have come without the possibility of parole - only a governor’s pardon can lead to a release.

· In the last 24 years, while the number of lifers shot up, the number of lifers who were paroled declined to about seven per year – despite many attempts by sentencing judges, prosecutors and victims’ family members to reopen cases or plead with governors and parole boards to grant lifers parole.

· In 1995, Florida changed its law to eliminate the possibility of parole for people sentenced to life.

· In 1997 Pennsylvania voters passed a constitutional amendment requiring a unanimous vote in cases involving the death penalty and life sentences. Prior to that, it took only a majority vote of the board to recommend clemency. The amendment also changed the composition of the board, replacing a lawyer with a crime victim.

· The goal of prisons shifted from rehabilitation to warehousing during the past 20 years. Older lifers had received job training, certificates and life skills training. Lifers entering the system today do not have access to training. Programs have been cut back and those that remain are reserved for prisoners serving short sentences.

Granting Parole

· In California, parole for lifers is a two-step process: the parole board must recommend it and the governor must approve it. In a 28-month period ending in 2001, the board considered 4,800 cases and granted parole in 48. Governor Gray Davis reversed 47 of the decisions. In his five years as governor, he paroled five lifers, all murderers.

· Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who succeeded Mr. Davis in late 2003, has been more receptive to parole. He has paroled 103 lifers, 89 of them murderers.

· In Pennsylvania, in eight years in the 1970’s, Gov. Milton Shapp granted clemency to 251 lifers. Since 1995, even as the number of lifers has more than doubled, three governors combined have commuted a single life sentence.

· Mistakes or commission of new crime by lifers on parole have been used as campaign issues and have led many governors to refuse commuting lifers’ sentences.

· In at least 22 states, lifers have virtually no way out. Fourteen (14) states reported that they released fewer than 10 in 2001, and the other 8 states said fewer than two dozen each.

· At the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, more than 3,000 of the 5,100 prisoners are serving life without parole; and most of the rest are serving sentences so long that they cannot be completed in a typical lifetime. About 150 inmates have died there in the last five years, and the prison recently opened a second cemetery.

Young lifers

· About 9,700 American prisoners are serving life sentences for crimes they committed before they turned 18. More than one fifth have no chance for parole. More than 350 of them were 15 or younger when they committed their crime.

· Life without parole is theoretically available for juvenile criminals in about a dozen countries. But a report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, entitled The Rest of their Lives: Life Without Parole for Child Offenders in the U.S. (October 2005), found that juveniles are serving such sentences in 3 countries other than the United States: Israel (7), South Africa (4) and Tanzania (1).

· The Supreme Court decided in March 2005 to ban the juvenile death penalty on the basis that youths under 18 who commit terrible crimes are less blameworthy than adults.

· Florida is now one of the states with the most juveniles serving life (600 juvenile offenders serving life sentences; about 270 of them serving life without parole).

· In Michigan, the percentage of juvenile lifers serving life sentences without parole rose to 68 percent from 41 percent in the 24-year period that ended in 2004. Now two out of three juvenile lifers there have no chance at parole.

· Juvenile lifers are overwhelmingly male and mostly black. They are much more likely to be in for murder than their adult counterparts.

· Forty-two states (42) and the federal government allow offenders under 18 to be imprisoned forever.

· Ten (10) states set no minimum age and 13 set a minimum of 10 to 13 for life without parole.

· Seven states, including Florida and Michigan, have more than 100 juvenile offenders serving life sentences without parole. Those sending the largest percentages of their youth to prison for life without parole are Virginia and Louisiana.


· Although opponents of the death penalty have promoted life sentences as alternatives to executions, many defendants ask to be sentenced to death rather than receive a life sentence with no possibility of parole. Lifers do not have the same level of support as capital cases. Inmates on death row are often provided with free lawyers to pursue their cases in federal court long after their convictions have been affirmed, lifers are not. The pro bono lawyers who work so aggressively to exonerate or spare the lives of death row inmates are not interested in the cases of people serving life terms. Appeals courts scrutinize death penalty cases much more closely than others.

· As lifers grow more mature, they often become less violent. Many experts question the logic of keeping them incarcerated when they no longer represent a threat to public safety – particularly given the strain of added health care costs and geriatric care.

Title of articles:

To More Inmates, Life Term Means Dying Behind Bars

Jailed for Life After Crimes as Teenagers

Years of Regret Follow a Hasty Guilty Plea Made at 16

Serving Life, With No Chance of Redemption

Michael Jackson