Throwing away the key

By Michelle Chen Jul 27, 2009

The “corrections” system has over the years drastically expanded the use of sentences that lock people away forever without chance of release. As with other facets of criminal justice, most of those lives deemed beyond repair belong to people of color. And many of them belong to youth, banished by the system without hope of ever proving they can change. According to the Sentencing Project’s analysis of life without parole (LWOP) sentences, between 2003 and 2008, the number of people slapped with LWOP has grown by 22 percent—to 41,095 individuals nationwide (about 10 percent of the prison population and some 30 percent of all life sentences). Under various "tough on crime" policies, the face of those put away for life are both grim and unsurprising:

• Racial and ethnic minorities serve a disproportionate share of life sentences. Two-thirds of people with life sentences (66.4%) are nonwhite, reaching as high as 83.7% of the life sentenced population in the state of New York.
• There are 6,807 juveniles serving life sentences; 1,755, or 25.8%, of whom are serving sentences of life without parole.
• Seventy-seven percent of juveniles sentenced to life are youth of color.
• There are 4,694 women and girls serving life sentences; 28.4% of females sentenced to life do not have the possibility of parole.

Among the states that allow parole for life sentences, the timeline for the parole process varies wildly, averaging about 25 years to become eligible. That is, eligible merely to plead one’s case at a parole hearing–which is itself a problematic institution–not the actual granting of a release. Some states (Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota) never allow parole for life sentences. Constituting around 56 percent of all LWOP sentences, Blacks are locked up for life without parole at an even higher rate than their overrepresentation in the general incarcerated population. Among juveniles, the racial disparity is magnified: In Alabama, 75 of 89 juveniles serving LWOP sentences are Black. In Pennsylvania, which leads the country in putting away juveniles for life, the color line permeates all phases of the criminal process: Black youth make up 40 percent of juvenile arrests, 54 percent of those detained, and 67 percent of juveniles imprisoned for life without parole. Notice that within the gradients of punishment, as the possibility of freedom tapers off, the proportion of Blacks held in the system rises. Maybe the most outrageous disparity detailed in the report is that between the punishment and the crime:

…in 26% of cases, the juvenile serving an LWOP sentence was not the primary assailant and, in many cases, was present but only minimally involved in the crime. However, because of state law, they were automatically given a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

The Sentencing Project notes that statistics don’t show that parole for life sentences results in higher rates of re-offending. Meanwhile, aging prisoners continue to languish in the system, and the state pays the burden of their rising health care costs. If we take LWOP as a snapshot of draconian sentencing policies running on auto-pilot, beyond the general cost to taxpayers, the essential question is “what if”? For every elderly inmate condemned to die behind bars, how else could those lost years have been spent? Under more open criminal-justice policies, how much more money would states have to fund schools, health care, and community programs that keep young people on a positive path? For every child written off as an incorrigible menace to society, what message is sent to kids on the outside, struggling to advance themselves within the ever-narrowing confines of the law? Image: Tamms Supermax Prison (John Smierciak / Chicago Tribune)