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Policy Statements- Life Without Possibility of Parole

California Attorneys for Criminal Justice is opposed to the use of life without possibility of parole as a punishment for criminal behavior, except insofar as this punishment is necessary in this society at this time in order to achieve the abolition of the death penalty.

Although life without possibility of parole is often discussed as an alternative to executions ("If you're not in favor of the death penalty, are you at least in favor of life without possibility of parole?"), in California both it and executions are available punishment options. Moreover, the inevitable push is to make more and more persons subject to life without possibility of parole: persons who commit second degree murder who have previously been convicted of murder with special circumstances, etc. Life without possibility of parole must therefore be seen as an extremely severe sanction in its own right, with significant harmful consequences, and not merely as a lesser sentence to executions.

We oppose life without possibility of parole because it denies any prospect of rehabilitation. Its premise is that no matter how immature the offender was when he committed his crime, and no matter how much time has elapsed or how much personal reformation has occurred since then, society will never be willing even to consider the possibility that he can one day be returned to its midst. As lawyers who represent those who have committed aggravated offenses, we do not share this view which places our clients and former clients as forever beyond the possibility of redemption.

The punishment of life without possibility of parole denies the offender all hope of eventually returning to society. Because it eliminates the incentive for the prisoner to engage in productive behavior, it reduces the likelihood that such behavior will occur. In that sense it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, both predicting and contributing to a lack of change in human behavior.

The elimination of incentives also creates a severe institutional problem regarding the management of our prisons. Inmates without hope of getting out of prison have little to gain by complying with its rules. They are less likely to respond to prison disciplinary measures. Whereas until 1977 life without possibility of parole was an extremely rare punishment imposed only for such unusual offenses as kidnap for ransom with bodily harm, since then it has been one of the three punishments for first degree murder (death, life without possibility of parole, and 25 years to life), and over 500 defendants have received it as a sentence. We have thus created a hitherto unknown phenomenon in our prison system: a large number of violent offenders who have no prospect of ever getting out. They are viewed as a serious potential management problem by prison authorities.

Although the Board of Prison Terms may properly be cautious in releasing violent offenders serving a life sentence until it is satisfied that they no longer constitute a threat to public safety, we believe removal of all parole discretion from the Board is counterproductive and a serious error in penological policy.

We therefore oppose the sentence of life without possibility of parole. We recognize, however, that there are many people in our society who currently support the death penalty but who would oppose it if they were convinced that certain violent offenders would never be returned to society. Because we consider the death penalty to be a greater evil than life without possibility of parole, we would accept the use of life without possibility of parole at this time if to do so would end the use of the death penalty.


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