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Life without Parole

Life without Parole: America's New Death Penalty?

Charles J. Ogletree
Austin Sarat
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Life without Parole
    Book Description:

    Is life without parole the perfect compromise to the death penalty? Or is it as ethically fraught as capital punishment? This comprehensive, interdisciplinary anthology treats life without parole as the new death penalty. Editors Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. and Austin Sarat bring together original work by prominent scholars in an effort to better understand the growth of life without parole and its social, cultural, political, and legal meanings. What justifies the turn to life imprisonment? How should we understand the fact that this penalty is used disproportionately against racial minorities? What are the most promising avenues for limiting, reforming, or eliminating life without parole sentences in the United States? Contributors explore the structure of life without parole sentences and the impact they have on prisoners, where the penalty fits in modern theories of punishment, and prospects for (as well as challenges to) reform.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6249-3
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Lives on the Line: From Capital Punishment to Life without Parole
    (pp. 1-24)

    Writing in October 2005,New York Timesreporter Adam Liptak observed that “in just the last 30 years, the United States has created something never before seen in its history and unheard of around the globe: a booming population of prisoners whose only way out of prison is likely to be inside a coffin. . . . Driven by tougher laws and political pressure on governors and parole boards, thousands of lifers are going into prisons each year, and in many states only a few are ever coming out, even in cases where judges and prosecutors did not intend to...


    • 1 Mandatory Life and the Death of Equitable Discretion
      (pp. 25-65)

      The common refrain is that the death penalty is different, but one of the most underappreciated differences between capital and noncapital punishment is the degree to which the death penalty expressly admits—indeed requires—an equitable determination before imposition. Specifically, the conviction and sentencing phases of a capital trial are bifurcated, and, although the conviction phase is limited to a legalistic determination of whether the elements of a statutory crime are met, the sentencing phase demands a normative evaluation of blameworthiness, based not only on the particulars of the criminal incident but also on the social and psychological circumstances of...

    • 2 Death-in-Prison Sentences: Overutilized and Underscrutinized
      (pp. 66-95)

      Over 41,000 people in the United States are serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).¹ In total, more than 140,600 people are serving some form of life imprisonment.² The data do not include the unknown number of people sentenced to prison terms that exceed their natural life expectancy. Even as a conservative estimate, the data paint a stark picture of a prison population rife with individuals serving sentences which will end only upon their death. These sentences have been described variously as “a living death sentence,”³ “death by incarceration,”⁴ a “virtual death sentence,”⁵ a “prolonged death...

    • 3 Creating the Permanent Prisoner
      (pp. 96-137)

      Every year, hundreds of thousands of people churn through the great revolving door of the American penal system. In 2006 alone, more than 840,000 people were convicted of felonies and sentenced to some period of confinement.¹ Of these, approximately 460,000 were sent to state prison, with an average sentence of 4 years and 11 months.² By contrast, as of 2008, only slightly more than 41,000 people were serving life without parole (LWOP) sentences,³ a mere 1.7% of the total incarcerated population.⁴

      Based on these numbers, one might well regard LWOP as the anomaly, and certainly not emblematic of the system...

    • 4 Life without Parole under Modern Theories of Punishment
      (pp. 138-166)

      Almost 10% of U.S. prisoners are serving life terms. In some states the figure is 17% or more; in California it is 20% of all prisoners.¹ Of the prisoners sentenced to life terms, almost 30% have no possibility of parole, and the number of prisoners serving life without parole (LWOP) has tripled in the past sixteen years.² Life sentences arise from a wide variety of offenses. A majority of life sentences are for offenses other than homicide,³ which is to be expected given that life is a common sentence under habitual offender statutes, such as so-called three-strikes laws.⁴

      The underlying...


    • 5 Defending Life
      (pp. 167-189)

      I have never been a defense lawyer, let alone a capital defense lawyer. Before becoming a law professor, however, I was a prosecutor. At the time, my feet were “firmly” planted on the side of seeking death.¹ The invitation to contribute to this book has prompted me to reflect on those days and on capital punishment’s often-neglected step-sister, life without parole. But perhaps more interestingly, this book has prompted me to think about what it means to defend life.

      I am no stranger to seeking death. As a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of...

    • 6 Life without Parole and the Hope for Real Sentencing Reform
      (pp. 190-226)

      In recent years, people seeking to limit the use of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) in the United States have won significant victories. The Supreme Court inGraham v. Floridadeclared a sentence of LWOP unconstitutionally cruel and unusual for juveniles who commit nonhomicide offenses. Some state legislatures have also limited the availability of LWOP sentences for juveniles.¹ These could be early signals that LWOP is on the same path to fundamental reform that the death penalty has been on for the past thirty years. Whether or not reform ultimately means abolition in some jurisdictions, it could at...

    • 7 No Way Out? Life Sentences and the Politics of Penal Reform
      (pp. 227-281)

      The Great Recession has raised expectations that the United States will begin to empty its jails and prisons because it can no longer afford to keep so many people behind bars.¹ As Attorney General Eric Holder told the American Bar Association in August 2009, the country’s extraordinary incarceration rate is “unsustainable economically.”² The economic crisis has sparked a major rethinking of U.S. penal policies that may eventually result in significant cuts in the country’s incarceration rate, which for years has been the highest in the world. Enthusiasm for the “war on drugs” appears to be waning at the federal and...

    • 8 Dignity and Risk: The Long Road from Graham v. Florida to Abolition of Life without Parole
      (pp. 282-310)

      America at the start of the 21st century stands out as a nation that embraces harsh and degrading punishments. This goes beyond our quantitative penchant for locking up a far higher portion of our citizens than any other country, to the qualitative way we punish.¹ Evidence for this qualitative distinction abounds. The US remains one of a very few wealthy democracies that retains capital punishment.² Security imperatives in American prisons, especially our unique “supermax” prisons, impose restrictions on the physical movements and human contacts of prisoners that stand out as harsh and severe.³ American discourse about punishment, from both ordinary...

  7. About the Contributors
    (pp. 311-312)
  8. Index
    (pp. 313-334)