By Alexander Ramirez
WASHINGTON D.C. – Research done by The Sentencing Project has shown that the number of people being sentenced to a life sentence without parole, life sentence with parole, or a virtual life sentence of over 50 years has been increasing since the initial life sentences were first recorded in 1984.
One in seven people currently in prison are serving life sentences, according to the report – that means 203,865 individuals are currently in prison with a life sentence; five times the level in 1984.
Research shows these sentences have been disproportionately higher among minority communities, with 46 percent of this population being Black, and 16 percent being Latinx. The number of women currently serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) have also increased 43 percent between 2008 and 2020.
Although the population of inmates over 55 years of age only makes up 12 percent of the state prison population, this same population makes up 30 percent of the population serving life sentences, whether or not they still pose a threat to the population.
The Sentencing Project performs research like this to bring to light the disparities and the destructive practices that plague the American prison system in hopes of leading to reform in the future.
“Life sentences are a poor way to achieve public safety because most people mature and change for the better with time, including people who have committed serious crimes,” said Ashley Nellis, the report’s author, adding, “Keeping people apart from the rest of society for decades beyond what is necessary is both cruel and costly.”
Some states are attempting to provide reform to this system through second-look legislation.
In 2018, California passed a law that allowed for prosecutors to argue a sentencing they believed were too harsh at the time of sentencing. The Council of the District of Columbia also passed legislation that allowed inmates under the age of 25 when they were sentenced to petition for a resentencing after 15 years.
The Sentencing Project would argue that this is a good start, emphasizing “start.”
To complement this reform, The Sentencing Project also suggested that a maximum cap of 20 years should be allowed for life sentences, except in rare circumstances.
This would free up funds to work on giving aid to communities and inmates affected by the prison system, so as to properly prepare them with dealing with the physical and emotional stress they may have received during their time in prison.
“Enacting a 20-year cap on life sentences in most cases could reverse the tough-on-crime policies debunked by years of social science. This cap would recalibrate all sentences downward, leading to substantial reductions in incarceration and producing a more humane, effective, just, and merciful system,” according to the group.
The main pushback against this is most people who received life sentences have committed violent acts to warrant their sentence. However, people who committed violent acts are not more likely to commit another violent act than someone who committed a non-violent act when they are released.
Proper parole and sentencing boards are necessary to properly gauge the inmates who are ready to be released, said The Sentencing Project.
Looking beyond the current congestion of inmates or the safety of those inmates, both caused by the COVID pandemic, for the sake of human rights and a more humane justice system, The Sentencing Project would argue that we need change, and need it now.
Alexander Ramirez is a third-year Political Science major at the University of California, Davis. He hopes to hone his writing skills in preparation for the inevitable time of graduation.
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