CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Thursday, October 6, 2005

"Serving Life with No Chance of Redemption"

An exerpt from's column Serving Life with No Chance of Redemption including New York Law School's CrimProf Robert Blecker, a retributivist advocate of the death penalty: "Minutes after the United States Supreme Court threw out the juvenile death penalty in March, word reached death row here, setting off a pandemonium of banging, yelling and whoops of joy among many of the 28 men whose lives were spared by the decision.  But the news devastated Randy Arroyo, who had faced execution for helping kidnap and kill an Air Force officer while stealing his car for parts.

Mr. Arroyo realized he had just become a lifer, and that was the last thing he wanted. Lifers, he said, exist in a world without hope. "I wish I still had that death sentence," he said. "I believe my chances have gone down the drain. No one will ever look at my case."

Mr. Arroyo has a point. People on death row are provided with free lawyers to pursue their cases in federal court long after their convictions have been affirmed; lifers are not. The pro bono lawyers who work so aggressively to exonerate or spare the lives of death row inmates are not interested in the cases of people merely serving life terms. And appeals courts scrutinize death penalty cases much more closely than others. Mr. Arroyo will become eligible for parole in 2037, when he is 57. But he doubts he will ever get out. "This is hopeless," he said.

Scores of lifers, in interviews at 10 prisons in six states, echoed Mr. Arroyo's despondency. They have, they said, nothing to look forward to and no way to redeem themselves.  More than one in four lifers will never even see a parole board. The boards that the remaining lifers encounter have often been refashioned to include representatives of crime victims and elected officials not receptive to pleas for lenience.

And the nation's governors, concerned about the possibility of repeated offenses by paroled criminals and the public outcry that often follows, have all but stopped commuting life sentences.  In at least 22 states, lifers have virtually no way out. Fourteen states reported that they released fewer than 10 in 2001, the latest year for which national data is available, and the other eight states said fewer than two dozen each.

The number of lifers thus continues to swell in prisons across the nation, even as the number of new life sentences has dropped in recent years along with the crime rate.  According to a New York Times survey, the number of lifers has almost doubled in the last decade, to 132,000. Historical data on juvenile offenders is incomplete. But among the 18 states that can provide data from 1993, the juvenile lifer population rose 74 percent in the next decade.

Prosecutors and representatives of crime victims applaud the trend. The prisoners, they say, are paying the minimum fit punishment for their terrible crimes.  But even supporters of the death penalty wonder about this state of affairs.

"Life without parole is a very strange sentence when you think about it," said Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School. "The punishment seems either too much or too little. If a sadistic or extraordinarily cold, callous killer deserves to die, then why not kill him? But if we are going to keep the killer alive when we could otherwise execute him, why strip him of all hope?"

Burl Cain, the warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, which houses thousands of lifers, said older prisoners who have served many years should be able to make their cases to a parole or pardon board that has an open mind. Because all life sentences in Louisiana are without the possibility of parole, only a governor's pardon can bring about a release. The prospect of a meaningful hearing would, Mr. Cain said, provide lifers with a taste of hope.

"Prison should be a place for predators and not dying old men," Mr. Cain said. "Some people should die in prison, but everyone should get a hearing." Full story... [Mark Godsey]

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