Packing prisons, squandering lives

October 21, 2005|By JEFFREY IAN ROSS

Over the past decade, the number of people sentenced to life in prison has doubled. This sanction has contributed to the dangerously overcrowded conditions in our nation's jails and prisons.

As more Americans express doubts about the morality of the death penalty, it seems likely that "lifers" are here to stay. But what social problem does life without parole resolve? And what does it exacerbate?

According to a recent New York Times survey, about one in 10 prisoners in the United States is doing a life sentence. Most of these felons are behind bars because they have been convicted of crimes other than murder, burglary and drug offenses. This would be fine if there was some hope of eventual release, but about one out of three lifers does not have that hope.

This surge in individuals sentenced to life without parole can be traced, at least in part, to the reluctance of judges to hand down death penalties. Recent exonerations of death row inmates based on DNA evidence, combined with the growing strength of the anti-death penalty lobby, have made the judicial system noticeably skittish about execution. Also notable, lawyers counsel their clients to plead guilty to charges in which conviction means life without parole because it is better than the death penalty.

Still, many lifers remain behind bars even with the possibility of parole because parole boards are reluctant to set these prisoners free and governors have cut back on the number of felons to whom they will grant clemency.

Over the past 10 years, because of the horror stories associated with some individuals who were granted parole and then committed heinous crimes, governors seeking re-election or wanting to leave office with an untarnished record have been hesitant to use this power to their advantage. Members of parole boards also seek to escape the fallout of a bad judgment call on their part.

Even well-meaning progressives can get caught up in this frenzy: The idea of "tagging" convicted sex offenders for life, using tracking devices and state registration systems, has become an issue for minivan moms and rural libertarians alike.

It must be understood that, for myriad reasons, some people who are given a criminal sanction are capable of change, while others, regardless of how long the prison sentence or severe the punishment, may never mend their ways. Statistics show that, in general, as prisoners age, they present less of a threat to society. But there are no guarantees.

All of these factors, combined with a staggering 20-year climb in state and federal prison populations, make it difficult to implement effective rehabilitative programs.

They also make the job of a correctional officer more dangerous than ever.

When will we reform our prison system? When will realistic sentencing guidelines, combined with well-managed rehabilitation efforts and a truly representational system of parole, take hold in our country? Perhaps never, so long as terms such as "soft on crime" are still tossed around in every political race from county sheriff to president.

But the studies don't lie. Reforms are needed - now. One recent survey, by the Washington-based organization the Sentencing Project, points to the harsh truth: The recidivism rate of lifers is considerably lower than that of the average person released from jail or prison. Give someone a life sentence and eventually parole him, and there's a good chance he will never forget the sword hanging over him when he walks the streets.

Policies and practices in connection with life sentences must be re-examined. Parole boards and sentencing commissions must carefully consider the purpose, intent and effects of life sentences. Governors and presidents must start reviewing cases for executive clemency without letting politics be the deciding factor.

Otherwise, life without parole is just a death sentence delivered in slow motion. The prisoner knows it, and acts accordingly.

Jeffrey Ian Ross is an associate professor in the division of criminology, criminal justice and social policy at the University of Baltimore. His book Special Problems in Corrections will be published next year.

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