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.
FORUM, NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 1987, VOLUME 14, NO. 6