Mary Pickard, 66, is serving life in prison for her role in the killing of her husband. Pickard is a domestic violence survivor who endured years of physical, sexual and verbal abuse by her husband and developed post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. At the time of the crime, she saw herself and her son in an impossible situation in which she felt that both were in imminent danger. Pickard has already served 15 years in prison.
Pickard’s case is just the tip of the iceberg of life imprisonment in America. A new report from our organization, The Sentencing Project, finds that an astounding 206,000 people – 1 in 7 people in prison – is serving a life term, including with or without the possibility of parole, and so-called “virtual” life sentences, where the offender faces 50 years or more. Overall, the per capita rate at which the U.S. uses life imprisonment nearly equals the entire prison population of several industrialized nations.
The number of “lifers” in prison – nearly 5 times the figure in 1984 – is an outgrowth of the movement to “get tough” that characterized sentencing policies in the 1980s and 1990s. Along with the spread of mandatory sentencing, “three strikes” and other harsh policies, states and the federal government have increasingly sentenced individuals to life in prison.
These figures come at a moment when calls to end mass incarceration abound throughout the nation. Despite the new punitive policy shift at the federal level led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, many lawmakers, practitioners and civil rights organizations are advocating for a sizable reduction in what is now seen as a bloated and ineffective prison complex. Yet the increasing use of life imprisonment suggests that substantial reductions in incarceration will be limited unless policymakers address the punishments at the deep end of the system for crimes that include violence, along with the more politically salable offenses involving drugs.
Most people serving life have been convicted of serious crimes, but among the population are over 17,000 persons convicted of nonviolent offenses and another 12,000 who were under 18 at the time of their crime. In three states, California, Utah and Louisiana, 1 in 3 prisoners is serving a life or virtual life sentence.
Even for individuals convicted of murder, robbery and other violent offenses, life sentences produce diminishing returns for public safety. A longstanding consensus among criminologists about involvement in crime is that most individuals age out of the propensity to break the law as they mature. The 18-year-old who was a lookout on an armed robbery generally has become a low public safety risk by the age of 40. About that same time the costs of incarceration rise with the health care needs of an aging prison population, diverting resources from interventions that could be employed with teenagers entering their “crime-prone” years.
While the majority of those serving life have some possibility of parole release, in practice such outcomes have become increasingly more difficult to achieve. Parole boards and governors in states such as Michigan and Maryland have adopted policies that “life means life,” even though that was not the sentence imposed by the judge in the courtroom. A variety of states have also extended the period of imprisonment before a parole hearing can take place and/or the waiting period for review after a parole denial.
As is true of the justice system generally, racial and ethnic disparities are also profound among the lifer population. Today, two-thirds of those serving life are people of color. While these individuals have generally been convicted of serious crimes, they are frequently sentenced to life imprisonment due to a prior criminal record through mechanisms such as habitual offender laws, more likely to be imposed on minorities. Life in prison after a “third strike” might seem reasonable, but it fails to incorporate an understanding of the role of concentrated poverty, aggressive law enforcement and implicit bias that contribute to these criminal histories.
Supporters of life imprisonment will argue that the individuals serving such terms have committed the most serious crimes, and therefore their punishment is appropriate. But such a position confuses proportionality with harshness. That is, all sentencing systems call for escalating punishments based on the severity of the crime. Murder is punished more harshly than robbery, which is punished more harshly than car theft. But this doesn’t mean that the punishment at the top of the scale needs to be so severe as lifelong imprisonment or the death penalty. All nations in Western Europe have abolished the death penalty, and sentences of more than 20 years are unusual.
After nearly four decades of prison expansion, the number of persons held in U.S. prisons has declined modestly since 2010, in part because of a rethinking of failed crime policies of earlier decades. Now policymakers need to reconsider the policies that have driven up the lifer population to its current all-time high. People like Mary Pickard have committed situational violent crimes, but they are not necessarily a threat to public safety. If we hope to sustain prison decarceration trends, we need to confront the excessive punishments meted out in courtrooms around the country, punishments which produce diminishing returns for public safety and deny the possibility of redemption.
You can also read this commentary on U.S. News & World Report.