The U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidated the juvenile death penalty may have been a step backward for some on death row who then became “lifers,” says the New York Times. Texas inmate Randy Arroyo said, “I wish I still had that death sentence. I believe my chances have gone down the drain. No one will ever look at my case.” Death row inmates are provided free lawyers to pursue their cases in federal court long after their convictions have been affirmed; lifers are not. Appeals courts scrutinize death penalty cases much more closely than others. Arroyo will be eligible for parole in 2037, when he is 57; He doubts he will ever get out.
More than one in four lifers never will see a parole board. The boards that the remaining lifers encounter often include representatives of crime victims and elected officials not receptive to pleas for leniency. Governors, concerned about the possibility of repeated offenses by paroled criminals and the public outcry that follows, have all but stopped commuting life sentences. In at least 22 states, lifers have virtually no way out. Fourteen states reported that they released fewer than 10 in 2001, and the other eight states said fewer than two dozen each. The number of lifers continues to swell even as the number of new life sentences has dropped in recent years along with the crime rate. Burl Cain, warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, said older prisoners who have served many years should be able to make their cases to a parole or pardon board that has an open mind. “Prison should be a place for predators and not dying old men,” Cain said. “Some people should die in prison, but everyone should get a hearing.”