Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

A seemingly endless spiral of razor wire at a California prison
Photo by Eddie Herena

Our legal system defines life without parole as one of the most severe punishments allowed by law — second only to the death penalty, due to its irrevocability.

While the number of people on death row has been steadily dropping for the past 20 years, the number of people handed life without parole sentences has been rising. There are about 2,500 people in the U.S. on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, while there are more than 55,000 people serving life without parole sentences, according to a 2021 report from The Sentencing Project. The same report found that life without parole sentences, or LWOP as it is commonly referred to, have increased by 66% since The Sentencing Project first began tracking the data in 2003.

Life without parole is the prison sentence most similar to the death penalty. No matter what transformation has occurred in the hearts, minds or souls of the condemned, they will remain in prison for the rest of their lives without hope of restoration.

Despite the harshness of a death penalty sentence, I believe that life without parole is actually a more severe punishment. It has been my experience — as someone serving an LWOP sentence — that when a human being cannot meaningfully contribute to their future, that is no life at all. Instead, they live long enough to watch themselves die in the hearts and minds of everyone who once loved them. It is torture.

That said, I am not in favor of abolishing life without parole. Instead, I advocate for a more responsible use of it as a criminal sanction. I believe the following three policy recommendations would help correct past abuses and prevent future abuses of LWOP sentences.

First, I do not think that first-time felons who have committed non-aggravated crimes should be sentenced to life without parole. That is unfair when there is no prior criminal record.

Second, when life without parole is a sentencing option, the jury should be taught the legal definitions of “incorrigible” and “irreparably corrupt” — which deal with the idea that someone is beyond the ability of being reformed. Lest we forget, our jury system does not require jurors to have specialized knowledge or training. It only requires that they are unbiased.

Third, I think legislators should create a new law, one that requires parole boards conduct a specialized commutation hearing for every person sentenced to life without parole after they have served 25 years. This would not only incentivize the inmate's behavior inside prison, but it would also give them the hope of earning the possibility of parole — and a life outside again.

(Additional reporting by PJP)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

David Ray Fleenor is a writer incarcerated in Oklahoma.