Last updated on: 4/13/2015 | Author:

Is Life in Prison without Parole a Better Option Than the Death Penalty?

General Reference (not clearly pro or con), an online resource for legal news and information, in a dictionary entry accessed on Aug. 18, 2008, defined life in “prison without the possibility of parole” as the following:

“[A] sentence sometimes given for particularly vicious criminals in murder cases or to repeat felons, particularly if the crime is committed in a state which has no death penalty, the jury chooses not to impose the death penalty, or the judge feels it is simpler to lock the prisoner up and ‘throw away the key’ rather than invite years of appeals while the prisoner languishes on death row. Opponents of capital punishment often advocate this penalty as a substitute for execution. It guarantees the criminal will not endanger the public, and the prospect of never being outside prison is severe punishment. Contrary arguments are that this penalty does not deter murderers, there is always the possibility of escape or killing a guard or fellow prisoner, or some soft-hearted Governor may someday reduce the sentence.”

Aug. 18, 2008 -

Derral Cheatwood, PhD, Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas, San Antonio, in his entry for the 1996 edition of the Encyclopedia of American Prisons titled “Life Without Parole,” wrote:

“A life-without-parole sanction is a legal provision that specifies that the remainder of the criminal’s natural life will be spent in prison. The life-without-parole sanction gained popularity as people realized that a normal life sentence, even a ‘natural life’ sentence, does not necessarily mean that the offender will be behind bars for life. Almost every state has a provision in its laws so that an offender sentenced to life becomes eligible for parole after a set number of years, or can accrue ‘good time’ credits and thus be released. Further, in most states the governor, sometimes in concert with a board, may commute a prisoner’s sentence or may pardon an individual. In those states, a governor could pardon a prisoner with a life sentence outright, or could commute a life-with-out-parole sentence so that the individual would then be eligible for parole…

There are two fundamental types of life-without-parole statutes. One addresses the problem of habitual offenders or career criminals, while the other reflects a just-deserts morality toward the most serious criminal offenders. In the vast majority of the states with such statutes, the sanction may be applied for a single crime, most commonly first degree murder, rather than for any pattern of criminal behavior. Since the majority of these statutes apply to first degree murder, they are referred to as capital offender statutes. As of 1990, approximately thirty states had some variation on a life-without-parole sanction for capital offenders. The laws are quite similar, with minor variations in each state. In six states the life-without-parole provision is found among the legislated duties and responsibilities of the parole board or parole commission. These laws restrict the authority of the parole board to consider parole or early release in specified capital cases.

The penalty may be an alternative to capital punishment or to a normal life sentence, depending upon the circumstances of the offense and offender.”

1996 - Derral Cheatwood, PhD

Adam Liptak, JD, Legal Correspondent and Columnist for the New York Times, in an Oct. 2, 2005 article titled “To More Inmates, Life Term Means Dying Behind Bars,” wrote:

“A survey by The New York Times found that about 132,000 of the nation’s prisoners, or almost 1 in 10, are serving life sentences. The number of lifers has almost doubled in the last decade, far outpacing the overall growth in the prison population. Of those lifers sentenced between 1988 and 2001, about a third are serving time for sentences other than murder, including burglary and drug crimes.

Growth has been especially sharp among lifers with the words ‘without parole’ appended to their sentences. In 1993, the Times survey found, about 20 percent of all lifers had no chance of parole. Last year, the number rose to 28 percent.

The phenomenon is in some ways an artifact of the death penalty. Opponents of capital punishment have promoted life sentences as an alternative to execution. And as the nation’s enthusiasm for the death penalty wanes amid restrictive Supreme Court rulings and a spate of death row exonerations, more states are turning to life sentences.

Defendants facing a potential death sentence often plead to life; those who go to trial and are convicted are sentenced to life about half the time by juries that are sometimes swayed by the lingering possibility of innocence.

As a result the United States is now housing a large and permanent population of prisoners who will die of old age behind bars. At the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, for instance, more than 3,000 of the 5,100 prisoners are serving life without parole, and most of the rest are serving sentences so long that they cannot be completed in a typical lifetime…

Fewer than two-thirds of the 70,000 people sentenced to life from 1988 to 2001 are in for murder, the Times analysis found. Other lifers — more than 25,000 of them — were convicted of crimes like rape, kidnapping, armed robbery, assault, extortion, burglary and arson. People convicted of drug trafficking account for 16 percent of all lifers”

Oct. 2, 2005 - Adam Liptak, JD

PRO (yes)


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stated the following in an article titled “The Truth About Life Without Parole: Condemned to Die in Prison,” available on its website (accessed Apr. 13, 2015):

“The facts prove that life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) is swift, severe, and certain punishment…

The death penalty costs more, delivers less, and puts innocent lives at risk. Life without parole provides swift, severe, and certain punishment. It provides justice to survivors of murder victims and allows more resources to be invested into solving other murders and preventing violence. Sentencing people to die in prison is the sensible alternative for public safety and murder victims’ families.”

Apr. 13, 2015 - American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)


Donald McCartin, JD, former California Superior Court judge, stated the following in his Mar. 25, 2011 article titled “Second Thoughts of a ‘Hanging Judge,'” published in the Los Angeles Times:

“I presided over 10 murder cases in which I sentenced the convicted men to die. As a result, I became known as ‘the hanging judge of Orange County,’ an appellation that, I will confess, I accepted with some pride.

I can live with it and, apparently, so can the men I condemned. The first one, Rodney James Alcala, whom I sentenced to die more than 30 years ago for kidnapping and killing 12-year-old Robin Samsoe, was, just last year, again sentenced to death for killing Samsoe and four other young women who, it has subsequently been determined, were his victims around the same time…

Had I known then what I know now, I would have given Alcala and the others the alternative sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Had I done that, Robin’s mother, Marianne, would have been spared the pain of 30 appeals and writs and retrial. She could have dealt then and there with the fact that her daughter’s killer would be shut away, never again to see a day of freedom, and gone on to put her life together. And the people of California would have not have had to pay many millions of tax dollars in this meaningless and ultimately fruitless pursuit of death.

It’s time to stop playing the killing game. Let’s use the hundreds of millions of dollars we’ll save to protect some of those essential services [such as education] now threatened with death [from state budget cuts]. Let’s stop asking people like me to lie to those victim’s family members.”

Mar. 25, 2011 - Donald McCartin, JD


Judy Kerr, victim liaison and spokesperson for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and sister of a murder victim, stated the following in her Mar. 28, 2008 testimony to the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, available at

“Life without the possibility of parole is an alternative to capital punishment that both addresses our need for public safety and allows us to redirect precious monies currently being used on capital trials to solving cold cases…

Testimony previously heard by this commission indicates that sentencing people to grow old and die naturally in prison costs far less than trying to execute them. Californians pay more than $117 million each year to maintain a death penalty system that is functionally equivalent to death in prison. Over 20 years, the state would save more than $2.34 billion if we actually sentenced everyone on death row to death in prison. These figures don’t even include the costs of trials. Each death penalty trial costs a county three times more than a trial seeking death in prison.”

Mar. 28, 2008 - Judy Kerr


Mario Cuomo, JD, Governor of New York at the time of the quote, in a June 17, 1989 article for the New York Times titled “New York State Shouldn’t Kill People,” wrote:

“What makes the risk of wrongful execution all the more unacceptable is that there is an effective alternative to burning the life out of human beings in the name of public safety. That alternative is just as permanent, at least as great a deterrent and – for those who are so inclined – far less expensive than the exhaustive legal appeals required in capital cases.

That alternative is life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. No ‘minimums’ or ‘maximums.’ No time off for good behavior. No chance of release by a parole board, ever. Not even the possibility of clemency. It is, in practical effect, a sentence of death in incarceration.

Life without parole is achievable immediately. The Legislature could enact it Monday. I would sign the measure Tuesday. It would apply to crimes committed the next day. In fact, the only thing preventing the next cop killer from spending every day of the rest of his life in jail is the politics of death.”

June 17, 1989 - Mario M. Cuomo, JD


Catherine Appleton, PhD, Research Officer at the Centre for Criminological Research, and Bent Grover, PhD, former Associate for Mitchell Madison Group/marchFIRST, in their Apr. 24, 2007 article for the British Journal of Criminology titled “The Pros and Cons of Life Without Parole,” wrote:

“For those in favour of LWOP [life in prison without parole], another key benefit is its retributive power. It is argued that murderers deserve to be so punished because of the heinous nature of their crimes. If the death penalty is to be abolished, a replacement sanction of sufficient gravity needs to be provided by law. Proponents in the United States have emphasized that ‘life without parole is certainly not a lenient sentence ’ (Blair 1994:198). Sometimes referred to as ‘death by incarceration ’ , such sentences are undeniably tough, pleasing both politicians and prosecutors, but also satisfying some opponents of the death penalty…

Deterrence is seen to be another major strength of LWOP. Some abolitionists have put forward the argument that while reviewable life sentences offer little in the way of deterring those who might kill, LWOP is undeniably harsh and its deterrent effect should not be underestimated.”

Apr. 24, 2007 - Bent Grøver, PhD Catherine Appleton, DPhil

CON (no)


David R. Dow, JD, Cullen Professor at the University of Houston Law Center, stated the following in his Oct. 26, 2012 article titled “Life Without Parole: A Different Death Penalty,” available at

“As a death row lawyer who fights to keep his clients alive, I believe life without parole denies the possibility of redemption every bit as much as strapping a murderer to the gurney and filling him with poison…

I’ve had clients who want me to fight for them, and then when we win and get their death sentence converted into life, end up telling me I’ve betrayed them…

For California’s 725 death row inmates, having their sentences commuted to life without parole would mean automatically losing their right to state-appointed lawyers to pursue their habeas corpus appeals. For a huge proportion, this would instantly rob them of every last ember of hope and increase by up to 20 percent the number of California inmates who will grow old and die behind bars.”

Oct. 26, 2012 - David R. Dow, JD


Kenneth E. Hartman, prisoner serving a sentence of life in prison without parole for murder and Executive Director of The Other Death Penalty Project, stated the following in his 2008 essay titled “The Other Death Penalty,” available at

“I was sentenced to the quieter, less troublesome death penalty, the one too many of those well-meaning activists bandy about as the sensible alternative to state-sanctioned execution: life without the possibility of parole…

I have often wondered if that 15 or 20 minutes of terror found to be cruel and unusual wouldn’t be a better option.

There is more to it than the mere physical act of imprisonment, much more. The more than 3,000 life without parole prisoners in this state [California] also enter a rough justice kind of limbo existence. We are condemned to serve out our lives in the worst (maximum security) prisons, which otherwise are specifically designed to be punitive. This means, in practice, rehabilitative and restorative type programs, the kind of programs that can bring healing and meaning to a prisoner’s life, are generally not available to us. The thinking goes that since we will never get out of prison there is no point in expending scarce resources on dead men walking…

I agree that state-sanctioned execution is morally repugnant. I do not agree that a life devoid of any possibility of restoration is a reasonable or humane alternative. It simply is not. A death penalty by any other name is as cruel, as violent, and as wrong… Both forms of the death penalty need to be discarded in a truly just society.”

2008 - Kenneth E. Hartman


James Ridgeway and Jean Casella, Co-Directors and Editors-in-Chief of Solitary Watch, an organization seeking to raise awareness about the impact of solitary confinement, stated the following in their Nov. 30, 2014 article titled “What Death Penalty Opponents Don’t Get,” available at

“In many states, the expansion—and the very existence—of life without parole sentences can be directly linked to the struggle to end capital punishment. Death penalty opponents often accept—and even zealously promote–life without parole as a preferable option, in the process becoming champions of a punishment that is nearly unknown in the rest of the developing world…

Though the requirement that life/LWOP sentences be served in solitary confinement is codified into law only in Connecticut, it exists in practice throughout the nation…

Research has confirmed that even brief periods in solitary alter brain chemistry and produce psychiatric symptoms ranging from extreme depression to active psychosis. Some prisoners who have spent longer amounts of time in isolation describe it as a condition that slowly degrades both their humanity and sanity, turning them into blind animals given to interminable pacing, smearing their cells with feces, or engaging in self-mutilation.”

Nov. 30, 2014 - James Ridgeway Jean Casella


Ronald Earle, JD, Travis County District Attorney, was quoted in a July 8, 2003 article for TIME magazine titled “Guarding Death’s Door,” discussing the conviction, death sentence, commutation to life imprisonment and subsequent release of murderer Kenneth McDuff who killed eight more people after being released:

“[Kenneth McDuff] was a clear and present danger I guess a true [death penalty] abolitionist would say, ‘Put this guy in prison for life,’ but he had already gotten that punishment, and he got out. Also, murderers can kill again in prison. It happens all the time. The death penalty is a necessity in these cases.”

July 8, 2003 - Ronald Earle, JD


David Schaefer, PhD, Professor of Political Science at Holy Cross College, in his Dec. 2001 article for The American Enterprise titled “The Death Penalty and Its Alternatives,” wrote:

“Death penalty opponents often argue that executing criminals is a needless act of inhumanity, since the threat of a sentence of life without parole is just as effective a deterrent to crime. Whatever one thinks of that claim in the abstract, the fact is that no jury has the legal authority to prevent government officials years or decades in the future from offering clemency or parole after all — or to prevent judges at some later date from finding grounds for a new trial…

Anti-death-penalty groups know, of course, that there is no guarantee that a sentence of life without parole will actually be followed. Potential killers likely know it too. Those of us who believe that the punishment should in some since fit the crime may doubt the prospect of spending two or even more decades behind bars, with the hope of ultimate emancipation… constitutes just retribution for an act of cold-blooded murder… And in a society that doubts its right to impose the ultimate penalty on individuals who have committed the most vicious crimes against their fellow citizens, the horror against committing murder will tend inevitably to erode.”

Dec. 2001 - David Schaefer, PhD