Is a sentence of life imprisonment without parole humane?

I hate the death penalty for many reasons that I won’t bother to go into here. But the recent results of an investigation about how over many decades the FBI faked forensic evidence to aid the prosecution in criminal cases should settle the case against it once and for all since it throws serious doubt on our ability to reach the level of certainty about guilt that a death penalty requires. (Thanks to Marcus Ranum for the link.)

Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, which are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.

The cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death. Of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison, the groups said under an agreement with the government to release results after the review of the first 200 convictions. [My emphasis-MS]

As Dahlia Lithwik says:

The massive review raises questions about the veracity of not just expert hair testimony, but also the bite-mark and other forensic testimony offered as objective, scientific evidence to jurors who, not unreasonably, believed that scientists in white coats knew what they were talking about. As Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, put it, “The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster.”

This study was launched after the Post reported that flawed forensic hair matches might have led to possibly hundreds of wrongful convictions for rape, murder, and other violent crimes, dating back at least to the 1970s. In 90 percent of the cases reviewed so far, forensic examiners evidently made statements beyond the bounds of proper science. There were no scientifically accepted standards for forensic testing, yet FBI experts routinely and almost unvaryingly testified, according to the Post, “to the near-certainty of ‘matches’ of crime-scene hairs to defendants, backing their claims by citing incomplete or misleading statistics drawn from their case work.”

Even if we had absolute certainty of guilt for the most heinous of crimes, I would still oppose the death penalty, but as a mean of trying to get it abolished and mollify those who claim that one should not let certain criminals out into the streets again, I have in the past supported the option of sentencing such people to life without parole.

But this article in The Intercept by James Ridgeway suggests that I should be a little more circumspect about advocating this too and that such an unequivocal sentence is wrong. He says that this practice is really a replacement of the older punishment of banishment that removed a person from a society but which has become impractical in a world of easy travel.

As usual, the US seems to be the leader in this type of punishment, with the burden falling disproportionately on black people.

The United States holds more than 2.2 million people in prison and jail, grossly outpacing the rest of the globe in terms of both sheer numbers and incarceration rate. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, we hold nearly 25 percent of its prisoners. Compared with Western Europe, we incarcerate five to ten times as high a percentage of our citizens.

But those overall numbers are just part of what sets us off from other industrialized nations. In Europe, the nature of sentencing is such that virtually every person who is sent to prison will one day return to society. Even those who receive “life” sentences are eventually eligible for parole. The International Criminal Court stipulates that those convicted of the very gravest crimes should serve 25 years before having their status reviewed. That is one key reason why rehabilitation, and not purely punishment and incapacitation, is the primary aim of the prison system.

In the United States, people sentenced to death number slightly over 3,000. With the number of legal and de facto state moratoria increasing, more of them are likely to die in prison of suicide or natural causes than by an executioner’s hand. They join tens of thousands of others in suffering permanent banishment to the carceral state.

According to the Sentencing Project, nearly 50,000 Americans are currently serving life without the possibility of parole (LWOP), a punishment that has been called “the other death sentence,” and which, like capital punishment, is unknown in Europe. In excess of 100,000 more are serving life sentences — many, like Patty Prewitt, with minimums so long that they will die before their potential parole date arrives.

About 10,000 of these lifers were sentenced before they reached the age of 18. Nearly half are African American — a number even more disproportionate than the total number of African Americans in prison. Thousands of them have been further buried in the tomb of prolonged solitary confinement, removed even from the meager community that the prison might offer– another practice virtually unique to the United States.

Everyone should have the option of parole because a lifetime spent in prison may be too much even for a crime such as murder. If a person has shown remorse after confessing guilt or have good behavior over a long time while protesting innocence, they should be considered for release. Surely everyone should have the chance of living free again, even if it is just to spend their last years with their families? The case of Patty Prewitt is a good example.

In 1986, Patty Prewitt was sent to prison for the murder of her husband. In addition to maintaining her innocence, she, like many others her age, has also been a model prisoner for nearly 30 years.

Patty Prewitt is one of the tens of thousands of Americans who will never again experience life outside of prison. While inside, Prewitt, a grandmother of 10, runs education and parenting programs, produces award-winning writings, and crochets teddy bears for charity. Yet for a crime committed three decades ago (and currently being reviewed by the Midwest Innocence Project), she will forever be barred from society, never again to live among free people.

Of course, there is always the possibility that a dangerous person dupes the system and is released and commits another crime.. The alternative of imprisoning for life many people who might be innocent or have truly changed their lives seems too high a price to pay for that possibility. After all, we live with similar risks all the time, with undetected murderers and serial killers and dangerously psychotic people roaming the streets.


  1. Robert Ahrens says

    while I’ve no problem with the fact that both the death penalty and life without parole are over used (and agree that the death penalty should be abolished at this point), there are still monsters who, like Ted Bundy, for instance, should never be allowed to walk the streets again, no matter how cruel one may see life without parole to be.

    Such sociopaths are a continuing danger to all, and it shouldn’t be hard to tell them apart from those who could eventually be paroled.

    However, all this assumes one can alter the entire justice system at both the Federal level and in all 50 States, plus the local level to begin to bring the focus on rehab instead of punishment. That is the hardest task of all! So many people who run those systems are focused on punishing the guilty (and often focus on merely racking up guilty conviction numbers) such that until they are either forced into retirement or fired, you’ll never manage the switch.

    So, yeah, good luck with that.

  2. hyphenman says


    I support the idea of life-without-parole over the death penalty because I just don’t trust the criminal justice system to convict the right person.

    Having said that, however, the first obligation of any criminal justice system must be to protect law-abiding citizens from those that pose a threat to a community. Until psychology advances to the point that a 100 percent surety can be expressed that a convicted criminal will not offend again, then violent criminals must stayed isolated from the society at large.


  3. lanir says

    The problem with pearl-clutching over the possibility that a criminal is released back into society at some point is entirely discounted in my eyes by a lack of proper convictions in the first place. What does it matter if you let out the person you sentenced for a crime early if you didn’t catch the right person in the first place? A lot of “tough on crime” you hear about seems to mean little more than “grabs the first warm body and convicts (possibly without proper procedure) with a hugely disproportionate sentencce because that’ll teach the actual criminal that got away that crime doesn’t pay”. It seems like a ridiculous idea to entertain when I keep hearing about violent crime rates falling.

  4. Ysidro says

    The part about “good behavior while protesting innocence” is interesting. I wish I could remember who I was listening to talk about their own experience being imprisioned unjustly. He did not get parole until he admitted to doing what he was accused of doing and undergoing treatment. Only after he was paroled was he able to prove his innocence and have his record expunged.

    Parole boards don’t want innocent people. They want guilty people who will admit their guilt. Because in their minds, if you’re innocent, you wouldn’t be imprisoned!

  5. says

    The US justice system needs to be completely reconstructed from the ground up.

    The first question that it needs to ask/have answered is “is the system punitive or rehabilitative?” The US system can’t seem to get its arms around what it’s trying to accomplish and so it accomplishes neither well. Consequently it fails to address the issues it would need to address if it went down either pathway. We’d wind up with a justice system like Saudi Arabia’s, or Norway’s — but we can’t have one that’s both. Meanwhile, it would be wise to inject some reality in the form of actual studies of outcomes: we know that punishing people and then releasing them doesn’t result in a reduction in crime. We know that the threat of punishment doesn’t deter crime, either. These are factors that need to be weighed in the construction of a justice system (Saudi Arabia’s punishments, much more severe, do they work?) and whatever we wind up with ought to actually work.

    If you look at the American justice system, it only appears to “work” if you contextualize it as a system intended to build a permanent underclass while protecting the interests of an elite, and transferring wealth from the poor to the wealthier.

  6. says

    I oppose life-without-parole. Not every prisoner deserves to be paroled, but there’s no way to tell who does and who doesn’t decades in advance. That’s what life-without-parole means in practice. It means letting twelve jurors from fifty years ago decide how we will treat prisoners today. It’s crazy.

  7. says

    there are still monsters who, like Ted Bundy, for instance, should never be allowed to walk the streets again, no matter how cruel one may see life without parole to be.

    Does Ted Bundy belong in a prison, or under psychological observation? I think you’ve lost yourself behind the ideology of “never walk the streets again” -- the question is whether they can be made to no longer be a threat. It’s plausible that there are some people who will always be a threat to society and who are incapable of controlling themselves or will never want to.* But it isolation is the goal, it doesn’t need to be a dank room with bars; it may as well be an escape-proof hotel. For some cases, it ought to be reasonable to offer them a painless assisted suicide option.

    The real question about people like Bundy is whether they chose to be the way they are, or whether they are basically suffering from birth defects that make them incapable of being safe, productive citizens. There are lots of people that might apply to, not just the dangerous ones; as the wealthiest society on Earth we should spend a bit more on such citizens and a bit less on bombing other countries’ citizens.

    (* What is the difference between Dick Cheney and Ted Bundy?)

  8. felicis says

    Robert Ahrens @1: “…there are still monsters…”

    While it is easy to think of other human beings as ‘monsters’ who are completely not like us (who are not monsters), the truth is that almost anyone is capable of the most horrific crimes. Unless you have perfected a ‘monster detector’, you haven’t made an argument against the possibility of parole for all.

    Hyphenman @2: “…the first obligation of any criminal justice system must be to protect law-abiding citizens from those that pose a threat to a community…”

    Shouldn’t it be to dispense justice? And -- seeing my comment on #1 above -- have you found a way to identify those who ‘pose a threat’? And what about all of the people running free who ‘pose a threat’? Is disagreeing with your politics ‘posing a threat’? Why not?

    lanir @3: Excellent points. Our justice system locks away (and kills) too many innocent people as it is -- should we not allow everyone the possibility that they could at some point be released? Although Ysidro @4 makes the good follow-up that ‘parole’ is only as good as the parole board -- if you don’t tell them what they want to hear, no matter how model a prisoner you have been, it is likely you won’t be released.

  9. busterggi says

    Life without parole doesn’t cause sufficient mental torment -- you need the opportunity for parole to raise prsioner’s hopes so they can be crushed when it is refused to really enjoy the system.

  10. hyphenman says

    @ felicis No. 8

    Shouldn’t it be to dispense justice? And – seeing my comment on #1 above – have you found a way to identify those who ‘pose a threat’? And what about all of the people running free who ‘pose a threat’? Is disagreeing with your politics ‘posing a threat’? Why not?

    Pose: to come to attention as : present.

    I’m not functioning in some Minority Report universe. I’m concerned about people who have been arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to isolation from the general population for violent crimes—murder, rape, vehicular homicide, &c.--who thus pose a threat to the community if allowed back on the streets without some absolute assurance that they will not re-offend and cause further harm.

    Have Coffee Will Write

  11. DonDueed says

    I won’t weigh in on this issue, other than to point out that LWOP seems merciful compared to Yahweh’s system of EWOP (eternity without parole).

  12. machintelligence says

    Marcus Ranum @7
    The problem with Ted Bundy was that he was so good at engineering escapes. He escaped from custody twice here in Colorado, and committed at least three more murders while on the loose. I have been informed that one should say only good things about the dead. He is dead. Good!

  13. iratebowel says

    kellyw. posting here

    Ted Bundy was a sociopath. He was manipulative and expressed no desire to stop his predatory behavior. I’d rather not have to worry about someone like that free to roam. Put them under observation all you like, just don’t ever let them in a situation that they can stalk and kill their targets of choice. *shudder*

    I suspect most people who do kill are not sociopaths, though, and life without possibility of parole applied across the board doesn’t seem like a good solution, especially since the US “justice” system is so completely racist. There are innocent people behind bars and people who can be rehabilitated. Prison doesn’t rehabilitate--it usually makes things worse. The system is such a disaster. The whole thing needs revamped--prison, judges, prosecution, police, etc.

  14. lanir says

    The main disagreement seems to be whether some people are just too awful to be let out. I wonder if there are statistics floating around that would let people compare overturned murder convictions due to later reassessment such as DNA testing and the number of murders committed by repeat offenders after they are first arrested. If you can agree that being incarcerated for a murder you didn’t commit basically destroys the life of the person it happens to, then it becomes a pretty straightforward comparison of which option is best for the most people. I suspect the former would outpace the latter but don’t have numbers to back it up.

    It may sound cold to just add up numbers like that but when you’re talking about lives being irrevocably altered in a really bad way or just flat out ended on either side of the discussion the priority becomes limiting the number of victims (and both counts are adding up known victims -- there are others in either category we’ll never know about).

  15. maddog1129 says

    Don’t just parole them, however. The parolees also need a reintegration pathway, so they aren’t disqualified from employment by reason of a criminal record.

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