As Death Penalty Loses Favor, Life Without Parole Terms Grow

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As the death penalty loses favor with juries, life-without-parole sentences have silently soared to more than 1,000 inmates in Oklahoma, costing a minimum of $17 million a year, the Tulsa World reportsOn average since 2000, about 35 inmates each year enter prison for life without parole, while four with the same sentence exit custody, usually by dying. Life without parole was allowed in 1987 as an alternative to the death penalty. While a provision allows for clemency, it does not guarantee the same level of state appeals or any federal appellate oversight as capital punishment. It has also been meted out for nonviolent crimes such as selling drugs.

Lynn Powell, of the nonprofit OK-Cure, a prison watchdog group, says these sentences are now getting a second look nationally. “It’s the death penalty but without an execution date,” she said. “There are groups in other states who are working to have appeals in place to review those cases the same as the death penalty cases. The problem right now is that they don’t all get reviewed, and those aren’t getting applied equally across the state.” The 885 inmates serving life-without-parole sentences represent just 3 percent of the total Oklahoma inmate population, but that figure is certain to grow. Since the number of inmates entering prison with that sentence spiked in the mid-’90s with a crackdown on drug crimes, the annual number receiving life-without-parole terms continues to increase generally.

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