The Supreme Court ruled last year that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile to life without parole when the crime is short of homicide. The sentence is no less severe when applied to adults, the New York Times says in an editorial. Yet life without parole is routinely used. From 1992 to 2008, the number in prison for life without parole tripled to 41,095, an increase much greater than the percentage rise in those serving life sentences.
The American Law Institute, a group of judges, lawyers, and legal scholars, has called for restricting the use of the penalty to cases “when this sanction is the sole alternative to a death sentence.” The racial disparity in the penalty is stark. Blacks make up 56.4 percent of those serving life without parole, though they are 37.5 percent of prisoners in state prisons. The law institute notes that an “ordinary” life sentence is “a punishment of tremendous magnitude” whose “true gravity should not be undervalued.” In the past 20 years, the average life term served has grown from 21 years to 29 years before parole. The newspaper concludes that, “A fair-minded society should revisit life sentences and decide whether an offender deserves to remain in prison or be released on parole. And a fair-minded society should not sentence anyone to life without parole except as an alternative to the death penalty.”