Crime and Human Rights (18): The Cruelty of Life Imprisonment Without Parole

My dismissal of capital punishment on moral grounds shouldn’t be understood as implying that this type of punishment is the worst possible one or that I’m ready to accept any other sentence in order to avoid executions. Life imprisonment without parole (LIWOP), for example, is often advanced as a good alternative to capital punishment and a means to convince people to drop their demand for that sentence. That makes LIWOP seem almost benign, which it isn’t. It’s particularly cruel, for reasons I discuss below.

That is why I tend not to argue as follows: capital punishment is bad because there is a less cruel punishment available – LIWOP – that does much of the things capital punishment is supposed to be doing (incapacitation, deterrence etc.). I argue instead that there are other reasons, beside overreach, not to use capital punishment. However, this post is not about those reasons, but rather about the reasons why we should also not use LIWOP.

Of course, “death is different” and capital punishment is particularly cruel. But LIWOP is also cruel, albeit mostly for other reasons. In one respect, it’s cruelty is similar to that of capital punishment. It’s irrevocable. The absence of parole means that “life” really is “life”. Of course, there’s often the possibility of clemency or appeal. But given the general “tough on crime” mentality among politicians and prosecutors, clemency for LIWOP cases is very unlikely, as are possible extensions of the right to appeal.

We also see, in the U.S. for instance, that clemency is more likely to be granted in capital cases than in cases of LIWOP since LIWOP is supposed to be “so much less cruel” (although also in capital cases the frequency of clemency is going down, most likely for the same “tough on crime” reason). Also, appeal procedures are much more developed in capital cases than in LIWOP cases. And when there is a successful appeal in a LIWOP case – for example because of new evidence of errors in the handling of the case – then these new elements are much less likely to be considered important enough to review the sentence, again because LIWOP is so much less “cruel”. Some people even argue that it is better to get a death sentence in the U.S. than LIWOP, because the appeals possibilities and clemency success rates are much higher. Especially innocent defendants have a much higher chance of getting their names cleared and escaping their sentence when they are convicted to die. Talking about irony.

Why does irrevocability make LIWOP particularly cruel? Some people say that LIWOP is a death sentence without an execution date. That in itself, however, may not make LIWOP cruel – you could say that all human beings are under a death sentence without an execution date, by the simple fact of human mortality. Still, LIWOP is a sentence to die in prison. It removes any prospect of change, rehabilitation or redemption. Whatever the prisoner does during his sentence, nothing is going to make any difference. Society tells these people that whatever they do, however much they try to redeem themselves, society’s not going to care. It’s not a sentence without an execution date, it’s an execution without a date: we basically tell these people that their lives are over. And we show this by withholding recreational and educational opportunities. Those resources, we say, are limited and better spent on prisoners who will get out some day. So that makes redemption not only useless but also impossible. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: we believe that they are irredeemable, and hence we treat them in such a way that they become irredeemable. If you don’t think that’s cruel, check your moral compass.

Opponents of capital punishment such as myself have to issue a mea culpa here. Our opposition has undoubtedly forced many more people into LIWOP. The number of LIWOP cases in the U.S. has risen dramatically, while the number of executions has fallen. One in every 35 prisoners in the U.S. is currently serving LIWOP (that’s about 41,000 people). This is the perverse and counterproductive result of well-intentioned activism. (See here for more counterproductive human rights policies). And it’s likely to become even more perverse: LIWOP cases, which tend to become more numerous as an alternative to capital punishment, don’t offer the same resources in terms of legal representation as capital cases, because people think there is less at stake, even when that’s clearly not true. Hence, a higher risk of miscarriages of justice, which are then harder to put right because of the lower probability of clemency and the less developed appeals procedures that also result from the idea that less is at stake.

So, what’s the solution? Well, obviously life with the possibility of parole. An argument in favor of LIWOP when compared to LIWP is that LIWOP is necessary for reasons of incapacitation. That is indeed a worthy goal of criminal punishment – if not the only goal -and some people do indeed deserve to be incapacitated for a very long time, perhaps even permanently. However, LIWP can also produce permanent incapacitation – by withholding parole when necessary – and can do it better because it can limit it to those prisoners for whom it can be shown, on an ongoing basis, that they are still dangerous. LIWOP means taking a decision about dangerousness once and for all, and then forgetting about the prisoner. The problem is that you can’t, at the moment of sentencing, make the decision that someone is going to be dangerous for the rest of his or her life. We simply don’t have the knowledge for such decisions. Psychology and psychiatry are not advanced enough yet, and will probably never be. Dangerousness has to be monitored continuously. People do change, except of course when the prison regime is such that they don’t get the opportunity or when the sentence is such that they don’t get the incentive.

And existing problems with parole (incompetent or lenient parole boards) are not a sufficient reason to favor LIWOP over LIWP. They are a reason to do something about those problems.

A country overview of the use of LIWOP is here and here.

2 thoughts on “Crime and Human Rights (18): The Cruelty of Life Imprisonment Without Parole”

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