A convicted individual on a life sentence without parole can’t return to the community. When their cell door slams shut, these people may feel a sense of fear, knowing they’ll be locked away in prison until they die.
What does life without parole mean? What crimes are usually punishable by life without parole?
This article explains life without parole and lists the states implementing such a sentence. The write-up also discusses the crimes punishable by life without parole. It gives insights into what life in detention is like for prisoners who received such an extreme sentence.
Expand your awareness about prison sentences by learning about life without parole. Read on and find out whether such a sentence effectively reduces crime or is unnecessarily punitive, denying prisoners the right to hope.
What Does Life Without Parole Mean?
Life without the possibility of parole is a prison sentence given to convicted felons who will spend their entire lives in prison without a conditional release before they complete this sentence.
Does Life Without Parole Mean 25 Years?
No. Life without parole means spending the rest of your life in prison without conditional freedom. It’s different from a one-life sentence in which a defendant has to serve 15 to 25 years until parole eligibility.
What States Have Life Without Parole?
Life without parole is a sentencing alternative in these states that practice the death penalty:
These non-death penalty states also offer life without parole:
|Illinois||New Hampshire||West Virginia|
In California, crimes that will get you life without parole include the following:
- First-degree murder as per Penal Code 187
- Rape as per Penal Code 261 PC (if the offender had an earlier conviction of rape)
- Felony-murder as per Senate Bill 1437
- Lewd or lascivious acts as per Penal Code 288 (if the defendant committed the crime while committing a burglary)
- Sexual penetration as per Penal Code 289 (if the offender tortured the victim while committing the crime)
Cost of Life Sentences
Nationally, housing an average prisoner costs $34,135 yearly. This overhead expense doubles once the inmate is over 50.
A life sentence given to a juvenile is meant to last longer than a life sentence issued to an older offender. So, a 50-year sentence for a 16-year-old offender will cost the state about $2.25 million.
How Do Prisoners Handle Life Without Parole?
Inmates condemned to die in prison are confined in high-security facilities with limited privileges. These lifers are far away from relatives and even in crowded group cells.
Still, lifers can cope maturely with confinement by attending to daily routines that allow them to find purpose and meaning in their lives in prison.
Research suggests that numerous lifers avoid trouble. Instead, they redeem the time for education, work, and rehabilitation programs in prison.
Unfortunately, nearly half of the correctional facilities don’t have an established plan to care for incarcerated older people, making prisons a dangerous place to grow old.
The carceral system isn’t equipped to handle older inmates’ social, physical, medical, and mental health needs.
The Nelson Mandela Rules or the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners state that rehabilitation to decrease recidivism (a tendency to reoffend) is the primary purpose of imprisonment.
However, life sentences go against these rules, eliminating the prospect of rehabilitation while undermining the right to human dignity.
Supreme Court Rulings
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that judges must consider the unique situations of every juvenile offender, prohibiting mandatory life sentences without parole. The decision became retroactive in 2016 to those individuals sentenced before 2012.
Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)
The Roper ruling affected 72 young people on death row in 12 states. The Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty is a disproportionate punishment for the youth. The Court stated that juveniles’ immaturity diminishes their susceptibility to outside influence and culpability.
Graham v. Florida, 130 S.ct. 2011 (2010)
In Graham v. Florida, the Court prohibited life without parole for young people not convicted of homicide. The ruling affected at least 123 prisoners – 77 of whom had been convicted in Florida, while the remainder in 10 other states.
The Supreme Court left the life sentence without parole as the most extreme punishment available for offenders under 18.
Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, 132 S.ct. 2455 (2012)
The Supreme Court decided on Miller and Jackson jointly, stating that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment.
The Eighth Amendment outlaws cruel and unusual punishment and excessive bail and fines.
Justice Kagan, who was writing for the majority, said that judges must consider the characteristics of juvenile offenders to issue a fair and individualized sentence.
Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.ct. 718 (2016)
Henry Montgomery was 17 years old when he killed a deputy in Louisiana in 1963. The jury decided on the verdict of “guilty without capital punishment,” which resulted in an automatic life sentence without parole.
In 2012, the Court stated in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life-without-parole sentences imposed on juveniles are unconstitutional.
Montgomery filed an appeal to challenge his sentence. Still, Louisiana Courts refused to apply the Miller decision to cases that had completed the direct appeal process.
Montgomery appealed, and in 2016, the Supreme Court decided in his case that all states must retroactively apply the ban on mandatory death-in-prison sentences for juveniles that the Court announced in Miller v. Alabama.
Mr. Montgomery eventually became a freeman after spending 57 years in prison.
Jones v. Mississippi 593 U.S. __ (2021)
A Mississippi jury convicted 15-year-old Brett Jones for killing his grandfather. Under Mississippi law, murder is punishable by mandatory life in prison without parole.
The Mississippi Supreme Court ordered a resentencing. However, the judge said that although he had discretion under Miller v. Alabama to impose a more lenient punishment, he determined that life without parole was still the appropriate sentence for Jones.
People Serving JLWOP (Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences)
The USA is the only nation that sentences youth to life without parole. A life sentence without parole is cruel, denying individuals their humanity.
Before 1980, the U.S. rarely imposed life without parole on children. However, the number of child offenders who received the sentence yearly started to increase, reaching 50 in 1989.
Although the number of youth murderers had dropped to 1,006 in 2000, about 9.1% of child offenders received life without parole.
In 2005, approximately 2,225 incarcerated individuals in the U.S. received a prison sentence of life without parole for a crime they committed when they were a child.
As of May 24, 2021, about 31 states and the District of Columbia don’t have any convicts serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles. It could be due to laws prohibiting the sentence, or there were no individuals serving it.
The life experiences of individuals sentenced to life as juveniles differ. A juvenile delinquent is a young person whose actions are characterized by antisocial behaviors subject to legal action.
Based on the data from the World Youth Report, young people under the following circumstances are at greater risk of falling into juvenile delinquency:
- Having alcoholic parents
- Living in poverty
- Enduring abusive conditions at home
- Going through a family breakdown
- Living in overcrowded places
The death of parents during armed conflicts, the growing number of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and AIDS scourge, and the lack of basic necessities are also reasons children fall into juvenile delinquency.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reported that race was a significant factor when receiving life without parole. Black youth received the sentence at a rate of 6.6 per 10,000, 10 times higher than White young people, 0.6 per 10,000.
Supreme Court Rejects Restrictions on Life Without Parole for Juveniles
In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority made it easier for states to implement sentences of life imprisonment without parole on juvenile offenders.
In a six-to-three ruling, the justices rejected the argument of Brett Jones, a man from Mississippi who stabbed his grandfather to death when he was 15.
According to Jones, the judge who sentenced him to life without parole didn’t make a separate finding that he was permanently incorrigible.
The term permanently incorrigible means someone is incapable of reform. The Supreme Court ruled several times that life without parole should be reserved for irreparably corrupt juvenile offenders.
The six justices ruled that a judge doesn’t need to find permanent incorrigibility before sentencing youth offenders to spend the rest of their lives in prison without parole.
According to Jin Hee Lee, Senior Deputy Director of Litigation of LDF (Legal Defense Fund), the decision was a massive failure of the country’s criminal justice system because the justices imposed the most severe sentence on minors without specific explanation.
Legislative Responses to JLWOP
In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified that imposing life without parole to a minor is only applicable for rare circumstances in which a juvenile’s homicide demonstrates irreparable corruption.
The legislative response to juvenile life without parole is either to abandon or to restrict its application.
The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization advocating for shorter prison terms, reported that since 2012 about 32 states and the District of Columbia had changed their sentencing laws for individuals under 18 convicted of homicide.
These legislative changes may undo the rapid expansion of harsh juvenile sentencing policies implemented across the U.S. beginning in the early 1990s.
What Makes Youth Different?
The difference between youth offenders and adult outlaws is that minors’ irresponsible actions aren’t as morally reprehensible as that of an adult.
Minors are immature and vulnerable. Their comparative lack of control over their surroundings means these young people have a greater chance of forgiveness than adults for not escaping negative influences in their whole environment.
Momentum for Reform
According to Chief Legal Officer Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center, juvenile justice reform is critical because there’s a risk of losing an entire generation of youth, especially youth of color, to the hopelessness of life imprisonment.
Abolishing juvenile life without parole doesn’t guarantee the release of youth offenders. Instead, it allows for review to be granted after a defendant spends a reasonable period of incarceration, considering each individual’s unique situation.
In several countries, the period before a mandated review is 10 to 15 years. Suppose adequate rehabilitation hasn’t taken place these years in prison. The defendant may remain incarcerated at the discretion of experts. The defendant’s case will be subject to review in another few years.
Life Without Parole Is Replacing the Death Penalty — But the Legal Defense System Hasn’t Kept Up
The risk of executing innocent people and the social and economic costs of capital punishment have led many to believe that life without parole or an LWOP sentence is preferable to the death penalty.
Life without parole is steadily replacing the death sentence across the U.S. Since 2007, 11 states have abolished the death penalty and considered the use of life without parole instead.
The 11 states that have repealed the death penalty are the following:
- Colorado (2020)
- Connecticut (2012)
- Delaware (2016)
- Illinois (2011)
- Maryland (2013)
- New Hampshire (2019)
- New Jersey (2007)
- New Mexico (2009)
- New York (2007)
- Virginia (2021)
- Washington (2018)
The Sentencing Project gathered official corrections data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and all states in 2020.
The data showed that more than 200,000 individuals in the U.S. are serving life sentences. About 30% of lifers are 55 or older, totaling more than 61,417 individuals.
The 2020 report also showed that the number of people serving life without parole, the most extreme type of life sentence, had a 66% increase since the first census in 2003.
Meanwhile, about 2,414 individuals are on death row as of April 1, 2022.
Two Strikes and You’re in Prison Forever
Florida’s two-strikes law states that offenders imprisoned for one crime may receive a life sentence if they reoffend upon release, regardless of their new crime’s nature.
Professor Christopher Seeds, an expert on life sentences at the University of California, Irvine, mentioned that Florida has an unusual number of crimes punishable by life, and governors rarely grant clemency. About 2,100 permanent lifers in Florida are in prison because of the two-strikes law.
Life without parole has expanded dramatically over the last quarter century.
Researchers believe that life without parole may produce a slight absolute reduction in violent crime. Still, it’s no more effective than life with parole.
Since empirical assessments of life without parole are limited, the public policy debate over such a sentence may also intensify.
The U.N. (United Nations) and its member states, including the U.S., should rethink, update, and revise the guidance on life imprisonment sanctions. In particular, life without parole raises cruel and degrading punishment issues, undermining prisoners’ right to human dignity by withdrawing the prospect of rehabilitation.
1. life without possibility of parole
2. back-to-back life sentences
3. Life Without Parole
4. Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Overview
5. The Truth About Life Without Parole: Condemned to Die in Prison
6. Mature Coping Among Life-Sentence Inmates: An Exploratory Study of Adjustment Dynamics
7. Nothing But Time: Elderly Americans Serving Life Without Parole
8. Life imprisonment: A practice in desperate need of reform
9. The Eighth Amendment
10. Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. _ (2016)
11. Henry Montgomery Released After 57 Years in Prison for Crime at 17
12. Jones v. Mississippi, 593 U.S. _ (2021)
13. JUVENILE LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE (JLWOP)
14. The Rest of Their Lives Life Without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States
15. juvenile delinquent
16. Juvenile Delinquency
17. Rest of Their Lives: Life Without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States
18. Supreme Court Rules Trial Courts Not Required to Make a Finding of Permanent Incorrigibility Before Sentencing Underaged Youth to Life Without Parole
19. Supreme Court Rejects Restrictions On Life Without Parole For Juveniles
20. Supreme Court Rules Trial Courts Not Required to Make a Finding of Permanent Incorrigibility Before Sentencing Underaged Youth to Life Without Parole
21. Juvenile Life Without Parole in Law and Practice: Chronicling the Rapid Change Underway
22. Juvenile Life Without Parole in Law and Practice: Chronicling the Rapid Change Underway
23. ROPER, SUPERINTENDENT, POTOSI CORRECTIONAL CENTER v. SIMMONS
24. Momentum for Juvenile Justice Reform
25. Life Without Parole Is Replacing the Death Penalty — But the Legal Defense System Hasn’t Kept Up
26. Life Without Parole Laws in States That Recently Repealed the Death Penalty
27. No End In Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Sentences
28. Death Row
29. Two Strikes and You’re in Prison Forever
30. Is life without parole an effective way to reduce violent crime? An empirical assessment
31. Life imprisonment