The American Bar Association calls for the abolition of life without parole
JA life sentence without parole is barbaric. Decarceration activists call it is “death by incarceration”. Pope Francis denounced as “a death penalty in disguise” when they called for its abolition.
Perhaps most of us can imagine extremely rare instances where public safety requires a person to be separated from society on a long-term basis, such as a person who commits a horribly violent crime spree, gets released, then quickly does the same thing again. Yet only one country, the United States, seems to hand down these sentences so casually.
Here, more than 50,000 people are currently serving a life sentence. This outrun number of everything prisoners in the six New England states. It’s more than the entire prison population from Canada, Chile or Cambodia. Although life sentences exist in many other countries, they are rarely used and usually provide for some form of early release.
At its 2022 annual meeting this month, the American Bar Association joined the American Law Institute (ALI) to demand the abolition of natural life sentences. For its part, the ABA now officially recommends “that federal, state, local, territorial and tribal governments enact legislation allowing courts to hear petitions that authorize de novo hearings to take a “second look” at criminal convictions in which individuals have been incarcerated for ten years. »
Leaving this to the parole boards would be inappropriate, as both the ABA and the ALI recognize.
If various governments adopted this recommendation, life with the possibility of parole would effectively replace the natural life sentence as the nation’s harshest non-capital punishment.
Leaving this to the parole boards would be inappropriate, as both the ABA and the ALI recognize. The ABA’s report accompanying its new resolution does not mince words, point out that “Parole boards are risk averse and reluctant to release people incarcerated for violent crimes for fear of reappointment or vilification in the local press”. He also believes that political concerns make councils ineffective.
The ABA is also skeptical of leniency as a structural solution to overly harsh sentences. In a word, the question is “political”. Beyond the selection of a few famous prisoners that a large mass of people believe are harmed, there is no incentive for a governor (or president) to release people from inhumane sentences, when electoral prospects could easily be damaged by media coverage of new crimes following such a decision .
In place, both legal groups point to “second look” hearings, in a process that would be governed by judges, as a way to repair some of the damage.
Both groups are part of the backbone of elite legal circles in the United States, so it’s no surprise that they see courts and judges as the solution. However, a problem with their proposals is the fact that judges are not apolitical either. In many states, judges are elected. It’s hard to imagine that these judges will be less risk averse due to politics than parole board members, when no state has a system for electing people to the parole board. .
Unfortunately, many of the states with the most prisoners serving life sentences without parole are the ones that elect their judges.
The concept of “second sight” would be more promising when the judges assigned to decide the motions were trial judges who are not elected, including judges from the federal system. The federal system is not populist – in the sense that although presidents appoint judges, they serve them for life, and presidential elections are too broad to be heavily influenced by popular contempt for individually appointed judges below the Supreme Court level. If someone doesn’t like a federal criminal conviction, the federal government’s response is “hard shit,” as long as there isn’t a narrow legalistic avenue to challenge. Federal System Prosecutorsm can also be very hard and hyper-faithful business litigation, but they too are relatively isolated from political or populist concerns, since they are not elected.
Unfortunately, many of the states with the most prisoners serving life sentences without parole are the ones that elect their judges. About 20% of these sentences are served only in Louisiana and Pennsylvania, although these states represent only about 5.3% of the US population. Not only do these two states elect judges, but they do so on an explicitly partisan basis. It’s hard to imagine a second look taking off in either state. Even in Philadelphia, which is widely considered a pioneer of progressive criminal justice reform, elected judges are in fact some of the greatest agents of thwarting change.
While obstacles abound, it is at least good that the need for change is recognized by major legal organizations. If they really want to achieve this, they will have to follow through with a lot of energy in their strategies and advocacy.
Photography by Jobs for Felons Hub via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0