State advocates are initiating hard conversations to challenge extreme sentences. The number of people serving life sentences in U.S. prisons is at an all-time high. Nearly 162,000 people are serving a life sentence – one of every nine people in prison. An additional 44,311 individuals are serving “virtual life” sentences of 50 years or more. Organizers in several states are prioritizing public education as part of a long term strategy to recalibrate life sentences. What is possible varies from state to state, but there are robust efforts underway to advance pragmatic reforms.
Tools to Reform Life Sentences
Louisiana lawmakers achieved policy reform addressing violent offenses this year. Legislators adopted SB 139 which authorizes three tiers of eligibility of parole for persons convicted of violent offenses.
- Those who do not have a prior felony conviction for a crime of violence or a sex offense (though they may have priors for nonviolent offenses) are eligible for parole upon serving 65 percent of their sentence.
- Those who have one prior conviction for a violent offense or sex offense are eligible for parole upon serving 75 percent of their sentence.
- Finally, those who have two or more priors for violent or sex offenses are not eligible for parole consideration.
Also, Louisiana lawmakers retroactively restored parole eligibility for a subset of persons convicted of second-degree murder. The law change establishes a parole eligibility valve for persons serving a life sentence for second-degree murder who were convicted for an offense committed after July 2, 1973 and before June 29, 1979 if they have served at least 40 years in prison. To be released, the parole board must have a unanimous vote of those present. Louisiana advocates are continuing to prioritize reforms; focusing on the more than 11,200 persons serving life or virtual life prison terms.
California advocates have worked for several years to increase the rate of parole approvals for persons sentenced to life sentences. The Golden State is one of only three states that require the governor to sign-off on parole decisions made by the parole board for life sentenced prisoners; the other states are Oklahoma and Maryland. Between 2000 and 2013, the California parole board increased its grant rate and governors—particularly Governor Brown—have reversed or requested reconsideration of fewer of these decisions. The parole board’s grant rate increased from 3% to 16% between 2000 and 2009, and increased further to 29% by 2013. California governors have varied in their use of the power to challenge the parole board’s grant decisions.
To address this parole review framework state groups like the Lifer Support Alliance work with persons eligible for parole on their applications. Similar groups are doing work in Texas and New York.
Tools to reform extreme sentences: Advocates organizing to recalibrate lengthy sentences make use of several resources that help push the conversation at the community level and within their state capitols. Tools include recommendations by the American Law Institute, research, public support of corrections officials, and strategic communications.
- State advocates have leveraged recommendations by the nonpartisan American Law Institute for “second look” provisions for life sentenced prisoners.
- State coalitions have garnered the support of corrections officials supportive of parole reforms.
- Research has helped state coalitions educate lawmakers and stakeholders. Advocates have highlighted research findings in commentary and direct actions.
Alabama – Advocates conducted community education and get out the vote efforts for state residents with felony convictions. Lawmakers authorized legislation this year that clarified which felony offenses result in disenfranchisement.
Florida – Activists continue to gather petition signatures for a 2018 ballot measure that would expand the franchise to state residents with felony convictions who have completed their sentence. Nearly 1.7 million Floridians are disenfranchised.
Louisiana – Gov. John Bel Edwards established a Governor’s Justice Implementation Oversight Council to monitor the comprehensive criminal justice reform package adopted this year.
Missouri – State lawmakers are considering reforms to probation and parole policies as part of a comprehensive criminal justice reform package.
New Jersey – State advocates launched a campaign to expand the franchise to residents with felony convictions in prison, on probation, or parole. More than 94,000 residents are disenfranchised.
Washington D.C. – Lawmakers are working to address criminal record stigma through expanding expungement or criminal record sealing policies.
Pennsylvania – Organizers rallied in support of legislation eliminating life without parole as a sentencing option.