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The Meaning of “Life”: Long Prison Sentences in Context

May 01, 2004
Marc Mauer, Ryan King, and Malcolm Young
In this report we assess the dramatic increase in the imposition of life sentences in the context of incapacitation and public safety, fiscal costs, and the sentencing goal of punishment, including the implications for both victims and offenders.

In the past several years there has been a significant shift both in public discussion and policy attention to the use of imprisonment. At the state level, many policymakers are now advocating changes in sentencing policy and practice that reflect new thinking and options for lower-level drug offenders in particular. These proposals emphasize shorter prison terms and/or diversion to treatment programs for cases in which substance abuse is an underlying contributor to crime, and for which it is believed that these approaches will provide greater public safety benefits.

In contrast to these developments, a variety of policy changes beginning in the 1970s and increasing in recent decades have set in motion a movement to extend considerably the length of time that other offenders spend in prison. These changes include such policies as mandatory sentencing, “truth in sentencing,” and cutbacks in parole release. While many of these initiatives apply primarily to persons convicted of a violent offense, in some cases they mandate long-term incarceration even for persons convicted of property or drug offenses.

Foremost among the changes affecting the prison population in recent years are laws affecting “lifers,” those persons receiving a sentence that may result in an offender never being released from prison. Policy considerations for persons sentenced to life are very different than for offenders who appear far less threatening, such as low-level drug offenders. For violent offenders who have taken lives or who pose a serious threat to public safety, incapacitation as a means of assuring public safety is a legitimate and compelling concern at sentencing. In addition, under current laws and sentencing philosophies, lifetime incarceration is deemed an appropriate punishment for the harm done by serious violent offenders.

However, the issue of life sentences is far more complex and cannot be regarded as merely strict sentencing for a deserving population of serious violent offenders. A closer examination of the number of people serving life sentences, their offense characteristics, and the judicial process by which their sentences were imposed, challenges many of the assumptions about the composition of the lifer population. Among those serving life are persons who themselves have not committed violent acts and others whose life circumstances suggest they are more vulnerable than violent.

In this report we assess the dramatic increase in the imposition of life sentences in the context of incapacitation and public safety, fiscal costs, and the sentencing goal of punishment, including the implications for both victims and offenders.

To read the report, download the PDF below.

 
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