Can the U.S. Abolish Life Sentences?

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child in prison

Photo by Osvaldo Eaf via Flickr

Why is the U.S. almost alone among Western democracies in condemning people to life sentences? Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis, co-authors of a new book calling for an end to the practice, say life terms are the consequence of outdated tough-on-crime strategies fueled by the drug war.

The publication of their book, The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences,” coincides with the launch of a campaign spearheaded by The Sentencing Project. Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, and Nellis, a senior research analyst, argue that the maximum term of incarceration for all offenses should be 20 years. Their book also features profiles of six people who have been affected by life sentences, written by Kerry Myers, a former “lifer.”

In a conversation with TCR, Nellis discussed the abolition campaign and its chances for success in today’s political climate.

The Crime Report: When did you first become passionate about the issues surrounding life sentences? 

Nellis: I became passionate about shedding light on people serving life sentences after I came to know many of them through my 2011 study on juveniles serving LWOP. I developed and managed a nationwide survey of JLWOP prisoners and was in awe at the kinds of lives they had experienced before they committed their crimes. Some of the most tragic stories of neglect and abuse, which have helped me come to understand them. Their childhoods don’t excuse their crime but they do help explain. This is the case for the adult lifers I have come to know as well.

The Crime Report: Should nonviolent offenders be receiving life sentences?

Nellis: We point out the 17,000 lifers (imprisoned for nonviolent offenses) as evidence as how the system has gotten so far off track that even nonviolent individuals are caught in the mix. We oppose life sentences whether someone is in there for violent or nonviolent crimes. We use that as an example to impress on people how unfair the sentence is allowed to be.

TCR: Should nonviolent offenders currently serving life sentences be released from prison?

 Nellis: There should be a limit on all prison sentences that caps at about 20 years, and only in very rare circumstances should someone serve the whole thing, such as where public safety is going to be threatened. And the review should begin around 15 years. Though it’s hard to imagine someone (in prison) after 20 years with a nonviolent drug offense would be danger to the community.

TCR: What crimes would require a 20-year sentence?

Nellis:  Something where someone was a serial rapist and also refused treatment for the entire 20 years of their incarceration and made the promise they would commit more sexual crimes. This would be someone who wasn’t just resistant to treatment, but refused treatment.

 TCR: One of the points you emphasize throughout the book is that lawmakers have used tough on crime policies as a way to get elected.

Nellis: It’s definitely very popular, historically, to be tougher on crime than your opponent. That had the unfortunate consequence of getting endorsement for policies that didn’t make us safer, such as mandatory minimums and the abolishment of parole. Both parties are responsible for those policies. Former President Bill Clinton is responsible in large part for the 1994 crime bill which incentivized sentencing to the states—that is why we have such long parole times for life sentences.

Ashley Nellis

Ashley Nellis

TCR: You write, “The rhetoric of the time (in the 1980s) created a bidding war in which political candidates and lawmakers competed to endorse even harsher sentencing policies.” Do we still see this today?

Nellis:  No. You see bipartisan support for criminal justice reform. Maybe for the past ten years or so, that’s been the case. As reform of life sentences, there hasn’t been much if any progress. Worst-case scenarios, life sentences are deliberately excluded from reforms to make sure policy recommended is palpable to both sides. If a lifer has been incarcerated for 30 or 40 years, they are excluded from reforms.

TCR: Do you see that changing any time soon?

Nellis:  We live in unusual times. It’s hard to know what the next move will be. In the states, there has been more political cover for ambitious reforms, but that’s not to say those reforms have been undertaken yet. It’s getting there, but mass incarceration is an enormous problem in our budgets, and in American society; so we have to quicken the pace if we want to see substantial change in mass incarceration.

TCR: How can America speed up the process?

Nellis:  Some of it is in the hands of legislatures, or places like [The Sentencing Project]. We have launched a national campaign to end life imprisonment. We are actively engaged in public education campaign to get most people to know that so many people are serving life sentences. Individuals who go in on a life sentence change over time. There is this widely agreed on phenomena of aging out that happens among people who go to prison, or don’t go to prison. We all change over time.

TCR: Do you believe fear-mongering is one of the reasons we still have life sentences for non-violent offenders?

Nellis:  I think that’s some of it. We no longer live in the time of early 1990s, when we had a substantial increase in violent crime. We actually have a downward trend in violent crime over the past 20 years, so it’s changed. You know, it used to be that we were afraid of people and we needed to incarcerate people. Now we don’t have more crime, but we say criminals don’t deserve to come out of prison because of what they did.

TCR: Why might that be?

Nellis: Because of crimes imposed on their victims, individuals think there’s always a chance the incarcerated could commit a new crime, or they won’t participate in society in a positive way. There are a lot of misconceptions about those in prison because of the lack of information about people who change when they are incarcerated. And that’s why we have parole systems to make sure that person has changed. The victims’ rights movement has become the judge of when someone can get out, instead of someone who is more educated to make that decision based on public safety.

 TCR: You write, “Perhaps the most glaring omission of relevant data was the failure of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the well- regarded research arm of the Department of Justice, to document the scale of life imprisonment.” Do you think this omission was on purpose or by accident? And why?

Nellis: I think it’s not on purpose, there just a lack of resources in the research arms. There’s also a lack of general interest from the public, so there was no incentive to document the expansion of life sentences. We shouldn’t be surprised that there hasn’t been data on the expansion because it goes along with laws and policies of the 1990s.

[The BJS] is not a political entity, but it seems to be. If you pass legislation at federal level that is bound to increase your incarcerated population… you should probably document the impact of those policies. If you pass mandatory minimums with the elimination of parole, it seems wise to document how many people go to prison because you did that. Once a lot of the public sees the dramatic growth of life sentences— nearly five-fold increase over time— then they ask “why did nobody notice this before?” The answer is because nobody was recording it.

TCR: You also mention that the number of women serving life sentences has risen at a faster rate than for men in recent years. However, you continue that domestic violence cases in which the woman kills her abuser are prevalent. What did your research reveal about the link between  domestic violence and life sentences?

Nellis:  Most of the work around domestic violence and life sentences is still in anecdotal stage, but there is a growing interest in understanding that. Some states have felt deeper than others. Michigan and Missouri have developed female lifer advocacy groups that focus on getting the stories of women out there that have killed out of self- defense. But because of mandatory life sentences or weak domestic violence laws, they are unable to avoid a life sentence themselves. We want to focus on this in the coming years.

The growth of women lifers has risen about twice as fast as male lifers. It’s still very much the case that life sentences are served by men, but the pace of growth is increasing more for women than for men.

 TCR: Are some states more equipped than others to handle domestic violence cases? You mention very few women receive help from the legal system.

Nellis: : I’m not sure about more equipped, but I know California, Georgia, Texas, and Ohio all have a considerable amount of women serving life sentences (300 or more).

 TCR: You also write, “The United States is virtually alone among nations in sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment.” What are the implications for youth, and the rest of the county, if young people are put away for life? 

Nellis: It sets us apart internationally, and we consider ourselves world leaders on human rights. But this violates human rights treaties. It’s against who we say we are. And it’s against what we know about adolescent brains.

There’s a fair amount of research and documented proof that children are different than adults. That’s been confirmed through cases we talk about; we can’t just view juveniles as little adults because they are not. Even if they commit tragic offenses they are held to a different standard. They should be incarcerated for some period of time, but a life sentence is completely inappropriate and that is recognized across the world.

 TCR: What about mental health care for people serving life sentences? In your research, did you find any prisons who supported this?

Nellis:  Not for lifers. Lifers, by in large, form their own groups with other lifers and support each other. But they are often excluded from programing because of their sentences. Programming slots are reserved for nearing release date individuals. So lifers are put at the back of the line or removed from consideration all together.

Megan Hadley is a senior staff writer for The Crime Report.

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