Because courts can sentence murderers to life without parole,
why not get rid of the death penalty? It's a frequent question posed by
readers and advocates who oppose the death penalty. For years, my answer has
been: If death-penalty opponents ever succeed in eliminating capital
punishment, their next target for elimination will be life without parole
or as lawyers call it, LWOP.
As if to prove my point, the Sentencing Project just released a
report, "No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America," which
advocated for you guessed it the elimination of LWOP. The report also
lamented that governors and parole boards are not paroling more prisoners
serving life (with parole) sentences.
The death penalty still stands, and already opponents are trying
to shave the only alternative sentence that ostensibly protects the general
public from the most dangerous predators.
(I say ostensibly in view of the fact of that California's last
lethal-injection recipient, Clarence Ray Allen, chose to aid his legal
appeal by ordering the murder of eight witnesses while he served a life
sentence in prison for murder. An accomplice killed three innocent people
before he was caught.)
The Sentencing Project is a national organization that works to
promote alternatives to incarceration. Ashley Nellis, one of the authors,
told me that the Sentencing Project opposes both the death penalty and LWOP.
She is aware that getting rid of LWOP would remove a common argument in
favor of ending capital punishment. But: "Both of those sentences are
problematic because they offer no hope for release and basically say that
certain people are unredeemable. They have no incentive to try to turn their
Clearly there is a schism between how the Sentencing Project and
your average juror looks at felony murder. Juries sentence violent criminals
to death or life behind bars because they see certain crimes as so brutal
that they must be punished severely.
The 48-page report addressed LWOP and the fact that "it has
become increasingly difficult for persons serving a life sentence to be
released on parole." It lamented the fact that governors are decreasingly
likely to heed parole board recommendations to release convicts and
unabashedly called for an end to juvenile LWOP sentences.
The problem is: I can't trust a report with five tables
dissecting the racial and ethnic makeup of inmates 48 percent are black,
33 percent are white and 14 are Latino but not a single chart that tells
me what exactly America's 140,000-plus inmates did to earn their life
sentences. Nellis and co-author Ryan S. King think it is wrong that one in
11 prisoners is serving a sentence of life or LWOP, but they don't provide
information that indicates whether one of 11 inmates is seriously dangerous
and belongs behind bars.
"We didn't have access to the crimes that were committed,"
Nellis told me, although she conceded "most" inmates serving LWOP sentences
"are in for murder."
In that the Sentencing Project has had no problem coming up with
statistics on draconian sentences that reveal the undeniable and outrageous
excesses of America's war on drugs, I don't think the researchers tried too
hard. When the statistics bolster their argument, they find them.
Don't worry about the Charlie Mansons of the world, Nellis told
me, as they never will be paroled. And she stressed this important point:
"We don't believe that everyone should get parole. We think everyone should
have the opportunity for parole."
As the report argued, "Life-without-parole sentences are costly,
shortsighted and ignore the potential for transformative personal growth."
This may surprise some readers (as they know I believe in the
death penalty), but I do not believe the criminal justice system should rob
the repentant of the opportunity for transformative personal growth. I
believe convicted killers can atone but they should do so from within
their prison cells.
And they can repent on Death Row. "No Exit" cites the American
Law Institute's support for "elimination of life without parole as an
alternative to the death penalty." But it's clear advocates don't want an
Given their objections to life sentences, if California or the
federal government ever discards the death penalty, all the money that gets
sucked into fueling bogus death-penalty appeals simply will move to bankroll
To the extent that appeals might help an innocent prisoner, that
would be fine. But if you follow these issues, you know that the most
unrepentant sociopaths will exploit any opening.
Think Kevin Cooper, who killed chiropractors Doug and Peggy
Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old houseguest in 1983 after
he escaped from the California Institution for Men at Chino, where he was
serving time under a phony name for burglary. DNA evidence has proved
Cooper's guilt yet from Death Row, he still finds lawyers who will ignore
the evidence, change Cooper's story and assert that he is not guilty.
Think convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal, who was shot in
the chest by Philadelphia police Officer Daniel Faulkner and found at the
crime scene with the gun and identified by four eyewitnesses as Faulkner's
killer. To this day, supporters argue that he is a "political prisoner."
End the death penalty, and these violent con artists could be
the first to walk and it won't be transformative growth for society.