Past Event

Sentenced to life without parole: America’s new political prisoners?

We think of "political prisoners" as persons sentenced to prison because of their political views, not because they committed a criminal act. But now some say there is a new crop of political prisoner: people sentenced to prison for their natural life without hope of parole or release. Others believe that life without parole is a just sentence for those who have committed heinous crimes.

What types of convicted criminals receive life without parole? Solomon Moore of The New York Times writes, "Although most people serving life terms were convicted of violent crimes, sentencing experts say there are many exceptions, like Norman Williams, 46, who served 13 years of a life sentence for stealing a floor jack out of a tow truck, a crime that was his third strike. He was released from Folsom State Prison in California in April after appealing his conviction on the grounds of insufficient counsel."

Before 1978, all people sentenced for any crime in Illinois were eligible for parole typically after 12 years, subject to the discretion of the Parole Board. This didn’t mean they would be automatically paroled, but over the years, with good behavior and by demonstrating transformation, they had a chance to be released. Now, however, according to The Sentencing Project, a record 140,610 individuals are now serving life sentences in state and federal prisons, leaving many to wonder what has caused such a change in the criminal justice system.

A recent report released by The Sentencing Project also found:

  • In Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and New York, at least 1 in 6 prisoners is serving a life sentence.
  • Five states – California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania – each have more than 3,000 people serving life without parole.  Pennsylvania leads the nation with 345 juveniles serving sentences of life without parole.
  • In six states – Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota -and the federal government, all life sentences are imposed without the possibility of parole.
  • The dramatic growth in life sentences is not primarily a result of higher crime rates, but of policy changes that have imposed harsher punishments and restricted parole consideration.

A growing movement of prisoner’s rights advocates is questioning the logic behind these increased sentences. Some of these advocates say that nothing proves that these sentences have any real impact on crime and that released prisoners who have served substantial time are only slightly less likely to commit another crime than someone who has never committed a crime.

Jamie Jackson, currently serving a life without parole sentence in Illinois, says, "Every day that I wake up, it’s a pain knowing that I have this sentence, and if these devils get their way, I will have to be here the rest of my days. Knowing this and being in this situation, just the thought alone will kill you from the inside out. A natural life sentence tells the public that you are a vile and insidious person and that you possess no rehabilitative potential to reenter society and be a productive citizen. This is a bald-faced lie, and this lie can be brought to an end today."

Do you think life without parole is an effective way of dealing with crime? Why do you think people of color are disproportionately affected by these kinds of sentences? Should people serving life without parole be considered political prisoners?  Do you think America’s "war on crime" has been effective? Why or why not?  Should the legislature change these sentences? Should juvenile offenders be subjected to life sentences? Martin Luther King said "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere;" how does the quote shed light on the question of life sentences without the possibility of parole?

Suggested Resources

* This week’s topic was written by James Chapman and students enrolled in the "Life Transformation through Communication" course at Stateville Correctional Facility.

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