Last updated on: 8/22/2008 | Author:

What Is Life in Prison without Parole?

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