One of every nine people in U.S. prisons, 160,000 people in all, are serving a life sentence. About a third are serving life without parole, and of the remainder, political considerations—governors and parole officials believing they need to demonstrate how “tough” they can be on individuals convicted of serious crimes—have made parole release increasingly difficult to get in many states, writes Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project in Democracy Journal. In addition, an undetermined number of offenders are serving “virtual life sentences.” For example, a 40-year prison term imposed on a 35-year-old offender essentially equates to life imprisonment.
It has long been known that people “age out” of crime; an 18-year-old arrested for robbery is no more likely to be arrested for this crime by the age of 26 than anyone in the general population. Mauer says “the excessively lengthy incarceration of offenders—yes, even for violent crimes—is counterproductive, costly, and inhumane.” He suggests that Congress and state legislatures should establish an upper limit of 20 years in prison as a maximum penalty, except in unusual cases such as a serial rapist who has not been amenable to treatment in prison or a mass murderer. The rationale for such a policy change is grounded in both humanitarian and public-safety concerns, he says. “Life sentences ruin families and tear apart communities; they deprive the person of the chance to turn his or her life around,” Mauer maintains.