Plight of Lifers Needs Attention

National Catholic Reporter, October 21, 2005 | Go to article overview

Plight of Lifers Needs Attention


A series of articles in The New York Times examining the fate of those sentenced to life in prison makes for sad if compelling reading. There are now 132,000 people in the United States serving a life sentence, and for all but a tiny few the opportunities for parole are dim to nonexistent. In at least 22 states, lifers have almost no chance of being released, The Times reported in its Oct. 5 article. This is no less true of juvenile criminals serving a life sentence, a population that has risen dramatically in the last decade in U.S. prisons. Only a dozen or so countries give life sentences for juveniles; of the four countries currently incarcerating juvenile prisoners for life, Israel has seven prisoners, South Africa four, Tanzania one and the United States 2,200.

Locking people up and throwing away the key seems to be more and more the American way. The phenomenon owes itself both to opponents of the death penalty who have urged life sentences in lieu of death and to politicians and prosecutors wishing to appear tough on crime.

But in addition to being expensive--The Times reports that at least $3 billion a year is spent on jailing lifers--life sentences without parole are in many cases both inhumane and unchristian. Certainly, there are prisoners who may need to be confined for life to protect society. But the articles make clear that many prisoners do not constitute a danger to society and could be released. Many--up to one-third of lifers--are in prison for crimes other than murder, including burglary and drug charges. The decline in the number of paroles given to lifers, both because more defendants are now being sentence to life without parole and because parole boards have grown charier of releasing prisoners, means that more and more prisoners are spending all their lives in prison without hope of ever getting out. …

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